Thursday, December 25, 2008

Showing Up for Christmas

Good evening, and Merry Christmas!

I love that wonderful Christmas song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," especially this verse:

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more. -Ralph Blane

So here we are.

Once again we have made it to this place; some of us haven’t seen one another in a year or more; family and friends together again. Like the shepherds, we hear the invitation as if from angels, and we make our journey to this sacred place, to witness, once again, the birth of God in our lives.

We come here, despite the fact that so many of us have perfectly good reasons not to be here.

In fact – I mean, there’s no reason why we can’t be honest about this – I bet there is more than one person here tonight that thought, I’m going to skip going to church this Christmas.

Maybe you’ve lost a loved one recently. It’s a very painful thing to be in church on that first Christmas without mom or dad or another loved one. Sometimes when we’re in grief, our happiest memories can just be too painful to bear, and so we avoid things like church that might trigger those bittersweet memories.
Bless you for being here, anyway.

Maybe you have been laid off from work, or had some other kind of bad news, and you’re mad at God; and you thought for a moment that you might skip church just to punish God. And then you realized that probably wouldn’t work and so you came.
Bless you for coming.

Or maybe you’ve just been feeling less and less connected to church, maybe the whole idea of church just seems increasingly strange to you and you wondered why should you go; but then you had a change of heart; or someone talked you into it; or you came out of habit anyway, and here you are.

And bless you for coming, too.

Whatever the reasons – and I’m sure there are a hundred other reasons not to go to church – here you are. Bless you.

Sometimes we do things for reasons we ourselves simply do not understand. But it doesn’t matter now.

Like the wise men, who followed a golden light.
Like the shepherds, who spoke to the angels.
You are here. And so is God.

There was a time in my life, almost 30 years ago now, when I had given up on church altogether. I had dropped out of seminary; I didn’t believe in God anymore, I thought the church was dying, and nothing could ever bring me back. Then my girlfriend (and future wife) said if I wanted to marry her I had to marry her in a church, and so she dragged me off to one, and I went there determined to not believe any of it, and I discovered something very important. God didn’t really care what I believed. God was simply waiting for me to show up.

I knew a guy once who became very angry with God because God had refused to give him what he desperately wanted. He had been praying for his wife, who had cancer, that she might be healed. And she didn’t get better. She died. And that was it for my friend.

Of course his heart was broken. At first he blamed God for it. And then he just stopped believing in God altogether. And of course, who could blame him? Because he thought if God exists, then God wouldn’t have let his wife die.

It took years for him to get a new thought about this. It happened when a friend of his dragged him back to church. And he realized that maybe it wasn’t God’s plan that his wife suffered and died; maybe God had been as broken up about it as he was; and that while he had given up on God, God had not given up on him. And so he spent the sum total of about one microsecond to open himself to the idea that God might still be alive; and everything changed.

These things might just be words to you; just vague ideas; sometimes none of this makes any sense at all until our hearts are broken open and everything falls apart. And then we have a choice: we can either just stay broken; or we can try to put the pieces back together again without God’s help – which is kind of like trying to fight an infection without the help of antibiotics – or we can take a moment to be here – really be here; and see what a difference it makes.

I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get with my faith; and if I’m not showing up on a fairly regular basis, I forget pretty quickly what it’s all about.

The other day I was standing in the middle of the women’s lingerie section at Macy’s, trying to decide whether the gift of a red satin Wonderbra for my wife was an appropriate expression of Wonder at our savior’s birth, when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a person’s voice speak my name directly into my ear.

It turned out to be an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in couple of years; he found it highly amusing that the color of my face now matched the color of the item that I was not hiding behind my back, and while he waited for me to recover my composure he asked me if I was going deaf. It turned out that he had been calling my name from across the room, but that I had been completely oblivious to him until he actually tapped me on the shoulder and spoke directly into my ear.

I told him that, as far as I knew, my ears were fine, it was just that, you know, I had been absorbed in this deep theological question.

But later, while I was driving home, I realized that he must have felt the way God felt, calling our names again and again, and getting no response, and thinking we must be going deaf. And then God got this great idea. He sent someone down; someone to cross the infinite distance between us, and tap us on the shoulder, and speak our name.

God is here, even now, calling our names, hovering in our shadows, waiting for us to turn, and recognize him.

In our loneliness, he is waiting to comfort us. In our despair, he gives us hope. In our pain, he offers solace. In our violence, he teaches peace. In our guilt, when we keep going over and over in our minds things we wish we had done differently, he forgives our sins and helps us to realize that all things are being made new, every moment.

Our savior is born, and we are born, anew.

Yesterday, I told that story to a friend of mine who is a pastor, and she said it reminded her of the time when she was rector of a parish like this one, and she was always terribly busy during the Christmas season and didn’t have any time to see her friends, until one day a friend stopped her and said, “How can I tell you I love, you, if you don’t have time to listen to me?” And she thought, that’s God, speaking to me.

And that made me think of the person I knew in college, who spoke very bitterly about how she didn’t have any friends, and I tried to very gently suggest to her that maybe she would have more friends if she listened more, and talked less.

How can God talk to us, if we won’t listen? How can we come to know his boundless love, if we won’t get to know him? How can we be expected to even notice the angels, much less understand what they are saying, if we never pause long enough to look up at the stars, and listen for the angelic voice?

What kind of people will we become, if we don’t take the time to let God into our lives?
The poet Walter Bowie wrote,
They whose eyes are in the dust
Will never see a star.
They who came to Bethlehem
And only dross have sought
Will take away alone with them
The emptiness they brought.

“They whose eyes are in the dust / Will never see a star.” I suggest that we take a moment, on this holy night, to bring ourselves to that shepherd’s field. The sheep have settled down for the night; it is still, and calm, and bright; a galaxy of stars lights the darkness.

We are showing up.
We are listening for the angel.
We are witnesses of God’s birth.

Come, Heavenly Child, and on this place
Shed the sweet halo of thy grace.
Anna Hempstead Branch.

Amen. And Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sermon about the New Chasuble

The Sermon about the New Chasuble
November 30, 2008
Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, CA
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence

Over the years, members of this generous congregation have made contributions to our Memorial Fund in memory of loved ones who have died. The Memorial Fund is one of our restricted funds – it is never used for salaries or programs, but rather to purchase items that will make a lasting contribution to the beauty and dignity of our worship. Chalices, instruments, stained glass windows – things that will endure. And so today we unveil our brand new Advent chasuble.

For many years, we have wished we had liturgical vestments for Advent that featured Mary’s color, which is blue, rather than the penitential color purple. We get enough purple during Lent, don’t you think?

Blue is the color of hope, and expectation, and prayerful waiting. It’s the color of Mary. You see here on my shoulder there is a rose - also a symbol of Mary (without thorns) and also appropriate for Santa Rosa (which, of course, is named after Saint Rose of Lima, the patron saint of Latin America). Plus, with the white background, we can also use this chasuble for weddings, and maybe even Christmas and Easter.

But you might ask, with all this economic recession, is this really the right time to buy a new chasuble? And the answer is, absolutely! It’s times like this when the world needs a new chasuble.

The world does not need a church that ducks its head and runs into a cave every time someone says it looks like rain. The world needs a church that will step out and proclaim a vision of hope when the rest of the world is caught up in a spiral of doom and gloom. And that’s what this chasuble is – a symbol of hope against a doom and gloom world.

It is the purpose of this sermon to prove this point.

Now, I can understand why there would be some confusion on this matter – after all, with readings like the ones we have today, some people might say that it’s the Christians who are full of doom and gloom, not the rest of the world. A casual reader of Isaiah might think that Isaiah is trembling before an angry God, who seems ready to punish his people:

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.” (Is. 64: 1-9)

And isn’t it Jesus in Mark’s gospel who is predicting all kinds of apocalyptic calamity:

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13: 24-37)

How could this be anything but a doom and gloom gospel?

Isn’t it really the Christians – well, and maybe the ancient Jews – who are always imagining something terrible about to happen?

Well, I really wish I had time to give the first of several lectures on the apocalyptic imagination of Biblical times, but just to cut to the chase I’d like you to imagine that you are living in Israel in the time that Isaiah’s words were first uttered – this would have been some time within recent memory of 587 B.C.

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has just swept through your country. Imagine an overwhelming army of the same kind of people who terrorized Mumbai this week – imagine an army of hundreds of thousands of people like that, invading our country, burning down every major city, destroying the White House and Capitol and National Cathedral, publicly executing our president, and then rounding up all the country’s best doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, scientists and clergy and marching them off to slave labor camps in their country.

That's what Isaiah had just lived through when these words were written down. He had seen all of this happen.

I invite you to imagine what his conversation with God was like at that point. Well, actually, you don’t have to imagine it because it is recorded right here in your worship bulletins.

And this is what is spectacular about what Isaiah says. And this is why this became sacred text. Because rising up from the depths of his soul, in the midst of just about the worst desolating sacrilege one could ever witness, Isaiah proclaims a vision of hope.

Now, there’s no doubt his faith in God has been shaken – he has been searching for a reason for why God would have allowed this to happen. And the problem is that he can only understand it as punishment for their sins – that’s the only vocabulary he has to understand this – but he also says in verse 5: “we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

In other words, if God would only reveal himself more fully, we would have a clearer road map and we would live in greater harmony with God; so the solution to this whole mess is that God should reveal himself more clearly. And that’s where we get this apocalyptic yearning:

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence - as when fire kindles brushwood!"

This is the quality of heart and faith that makes Isaiah’s words sacred to us – because in the midst of the most horrifying devastation, when the worst possible thing has happened, Isaiah still proclaims hope and faith in God and in a community that lives in harmony with God. Even when the world is run amok by violent hordes of Babylonian warriors in their brass boots, still we have hope in a God who will redeem us; still we believe in a community of laws and order; still we believe in the possibility of a peace that passes all understanding; a peace established by God’s revelation of himself to us.

And that is what apocalypse is all about. It is a lifting of the veil, literally; it is the bright day when God is no longer hidden, when God’s purpose is made plain, and when all of God’s children can finally see it for themselves, and live their lives in harmony.

Of course, Isaiah - and later Jesus under Roman rule - imagined this to be a cataclysmic event; and of course, who can blame them if they imagined some kind of deeply satisfying retribution upon those who had just desecrated and destroyed the Holy Temple. But it is that courage to imagine God at all – and not only imagine God, but imagine a world living in harmony – that makes everything else about us and our faith possible.

You know, when we’re surrounded by people who think it's the end of the world because they can't afford a $4 cup of coffee, or when we can't get away from people who complain and find the negative side to every story, or when we are trapped in a room with people who are always thinking that the worst is about to happen if it isn't happening already,

- we are the ones who say no, it’s God's reign that is about to happen if it isn't happening already.

These last few weeks, we’ve seen how so much of our economy runs on faith - panic sets in over consumer confidence and economic forecasts and assessments that are little more than a mixture astrology and reading tea leaves - our world economy is completely a matter of collective faith.

It really is as if we are all like a flock of birds, every individual turning instantly with the rest of the flock, caught up in massive waves directed by nothing in particular except news, radio, TV – they create a world that has no reality and yet decides whether or not thousands of people have jobs or not.

But we are Christians; and we have a voice too. We have something to say to the world. We have something to show the world.

When other children are lost in a meaningless competition for superiority in sports or in school, we are the ones who celebrate their achievements, but also carry an alternative imagination of a world under the reign of God. We are the ones to say there's more to life than jumping onto a treadmill of relentless competition. There's a place where you can go – it’s called a church – where you will be loved just for being yourself.

When our friends get cancer and the prognosis is not good we are not the ones who reinforce despair and death – no, we are there to hold your hand, and look into your eyes and speak a deeper truth, which is that we'll get through this together, and we will pray for healing ‘til the cows come home -- and that healing power is real.
Which gets us back to the chasuble. Because of course, here at the Church of the Incarnation we have our own gloom and doom forecasts - we face our own economic challenges as a community that can be scary. But we are here to say this is a spiritual challenge and nothing but a spiritual challenge. It’s up to us whether we choose to respond with fear or with faith. Are we living in the empire of low expectations or will we rise to the challenge of hope? Will we retreat from the world and join in the voices of gloom or will we proclaim the gospel with love and confidence in ourselves and in this parish and the value of our enterprise?

A few weeks ago Warren Buffet reminded us that when everyone else is selling, that's when you should be buying. I don’t know whether he’s a Christian but I do know he’s a man of faith.

When the plague came to Europe and everyone was in a panic, it was a handful of nuns and priests who taught the world about love and courage, ministering to the sick despite the fear of death all around them.

When food becomes scarce, we are the ones who open soup kitchens and food pantries – we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years – like our mission in Monte Rio and like the Living Room here at our church. We are the ones to show the world how to pool our resources to create abundance, and community out of scarcity and competition.
So gloom and doom doesn’t scare us. We don’t rattle. We are the proclaimers of hope. We are gospel people.

And this is why we have a new chasuble. Because in times of sackcloth and ashes, or even in times just of rumors of sackcloth and ashes, the world needs a new chasuble.
Somebody say, AMEN.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wisdom vs. the Scoffers

This morning we are treated to a rare reading from the Wisdom of Solomon – a book from the Apocrypha that is part of what is called the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. Other books of the Bible that are included in the Wisdom literature are the booksof Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus. And one could also argue that the Gospels are themselves part of the Wisdom Literature, in that the teachings of Jesus and the person of Jesus both represent this tradition.

It’s too bad we don’t have more readings from these books of the Bible, because of all the books of the Bible, the Wisdom literature is probably the most compatible with the world view of the modern Episcopalian. In the Wisdom literature, the Creation is celebrated and human experience is honored; God takes on a female aspect and delights in humanity; and sin is defined not as the priests defined it in other parts of the Bible - as a violation of the Purity Code - but instead as simple ignorance and a general stubbornness.

In the first chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom, who is a female form of the Godhead,

"cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice...
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?"

I don’t know about you, but those are questions I have asked often - especially during this long election season, when it seemed we were in an endless season of scoffing, I asked that question: “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

But, of course the problem is that it’s hard to ask that question without sounding like a scoffer yourself. I mean, whether you are, say, a governor from Alaska scoffing at the liberal media, or a fake newsman on Comedy Central scoffing at a governor, either way there was a whole lot of scoffing going on. And if there’s anything that I look forward to now, it’s a time of less scoffing and more listening.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or a None-of-the-above, I’m sure we all can be proud of what our nation achieved on Tuesday night. Of course, as the parents of a bi-racial child who hopes to be president one day, Rose and I were deeply encouraged by the election results. Our son is just that much closer to the White House now.

Except, of course, it will no surprise that we were disappointed with the outcome on Proposition 8. I grieve for all of my friends who have just been informed by a majority of voters in California that some people are less equal then others. And I also grieve for how the debate was conducted. Whether you voted for Proposition 8 or against it, I think all of us would agree that the debate was dominated by a complete ignorance of the Bible.

It is incomprehensible to me that a Christian pastor, a man who claims to know the Bible, can stand before his congregation and say with a straight face that “the Bible defines traditional marriage as one man, one woman.”

Where, I would like to know, is that found in the Bible? All I know is that in 1 Kings, it says that Solomon had “seven hundred [wives who were] princesses and three hundred concubines.” I know that in Genesis, Chapter 16, it says that when Sarah was unable to conceive a child, Abraham took their slave, Hagar, as a wife. I know that in Jesus’ own time, the law was that if you were a married woman and your husband died, you were required to marry your husband’s brother, whether you liked it or not - whether he was married or not. I know that throughout the Bible, marriage as we understand it today is almost nowhere to be found; that women were considered a form of property, and that women had virtually none of what we in today’s society would recognize as basic human rights.

So for a Christian minister to stand up in front of God and all the world and proclaim the Bible as a model and standard for traditional marriage – well, either he hasn’t read his Bible, or he is willfully misleading his congregation. Which do you suppose it is?

I don’t know. But the fact that these pastors got away with it – the fact that they were not hooted out of their pulpits - well, that just speaks to a profound ignorance on the part of Christians for their own Holy Scriptures.

Wisdom cries out in the street... How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?

God forgive me for being such a scoffer.

I blame myself for not doing enough to address this state of affairs. Maybe we don’t teach enough about the Bible here in this church. Perhaps I should speak more often about what Biblical scholars have to say about the Scriptures we read in our services. Maybe I should talk more, for example, about the scholarship behind this morning’s gospel reading, which most objective scholars doubt ever came from the mouth of Jesus. As one group of scholars put it, this story lacks all of the traits that we associate with Jesus’ authentic teaching: it “lacks humor, exaggeration, and paradox, it is straightforward, unimaginative, and moralizing... its application is obvious... and in addition, the parable emphasizes the social boundaries” that Jesus himself challenged throughout his ministry. [The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar]

So what does this mean for us? I think it means that the reading of Scripture is not simple. That sometimes life gets complicated. That of course when we come to church and we kneel at this altar rail, we open ourselves to communion with God on the most elemental level – but that doesn’t mean we check our minds at the door. That the spiritual life that has integrity demands our best thinking and a critical reading of Scripture.

I heard a Unitarian pastor on the radio the other day (The Rev. Forest Church) who said that “our church does not give answers to unanswerable questions.” I loved that – and that’s the Episcopal Church too.

Maybe I, and other clergy, need to be more explicit in our teaching on the Bible; so that we can teach one another to be more discerning of Scripture - not just so that we have more educated congregations, but so that when people start representing the Bible in completely fictitious ways, there will be more of us who have the tools to argue the truth.

Well, if you are interested in deepening your understanding of our sacred Scriptures, I encourage you to consider joining one of the home Bible Study groups that are forming now in our church. You will hear more about them and other small groups next week, when Mitch Garcia will be preaching.

So getting back to Wisdom, this female aspect of the divine: she stands before us and begs us to come to her. In the book of Proverbs she pre-figures what Christians would later claim about Jesus Christ: she is the Hebrew version of Logos, this ordering principle of the universe; this aspect of creation that makes all knowledge possible. The author of John’s gospel clearly had meditated very deeply on this aspect of Wisdom when writing the prologue:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
When he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above... I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Wisdom is presented in the book of Proverbs as the companion or the consort of God the Creator: her partnership with God the Father becomes what later Christian mystics would call the “marriage of the sacred masculine and the divine feminine.” As Jesus takes on these aspects of Wisdom, incarnate, this sacred marriage of the masculine and the feminine is revealed to the world in the form of a fully integrated human being.

Centuries later, Christian mystics like Hildegaard and Theresa and Meister Eckhart would proclaim their own visions of this divine marriage made manifest in Christ; and in the process they would reveal a sacred balance between the masculine and the feminine, both in how we represent the Godhead, and how we understand our own selves.

Perhaps it is time that we more fully embrace this Wisdom; perhaps it is time that we celebrate this divine aspect of the Godhead; maybe then, Christians will be less afraid of men who embrace their feminine side, and women who accept their masculine side.

This is the Wisdom of Scripture; this is the Wisdom of the ages, speaking to us. She is begging us to live a more balanced life – because “the desire for wisdom leads to the kingdom of God.”

Somebody say.... AMEN.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Showing Us How to Show Up

Sermon preached October 26, 2008
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

Good morning.

It’s been a tough week for many of us. By now, most of you have heard the news that on Monday, Don McIntyre – a beloved and longtime member of our congregation – died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.

This week I spent a bit of time with Carol and her children and in-laws; they’re doing okay – or at least as well as you might expect – and wanted me to thank you for the cards and flowers that have been pouring in.

This is a shocking one, because Don was so vigorous and healthy. Just last Sunday he was ushering here; I caught sight of him as I was crossing the street to preach at the Unitarian church and we waved hello. At the age of 74, it looked like he would keep on going forever.

Just a few weeks ago he and Carol stood here and talked about their love for this church. We never got to return the favor – to speak of our love for him.
Not that Don would have had much time for that anyway. He was a pretty straightforward guy, not very interested in big expressions of gratitude. But underneath his precise crew cut and piercing eyes he had a huge heart; in fact there were times, like when he asked to have his marriage vows renewed, when he was nothing but a big tub of feelings.

That being said, though, most of the time Don channeled his love into doing good things for people.

Don was all about doing good things for people.

A few years ago I got it into my head that I was going to build a big beautiful new workbench system in my garage. Most of it was simple carpentry – nothing I couldn’t handle – but the plan also involved installing a series of lights and outlets for my power tools. And knowing nothing about electricity I asked Don McIntyre if he might come over and show me how to wire it.

And Don said, “Sure, I’ll be there tomorrow.”

Now, I never asked him if he actually wanted to do this work – and there were moments during the next two afternoons – like when we finished the job and flipped on the switch and the lights refused to go on – when I thought I heard some quiet expressions of regret...

But this is the point – his interest in helping out was never about his feelings or desires. He would never have said, “Yes, I want to help you, because I like you.” That would have been so beside the point. Because for Don, that was not how love was measured. Real love is not measured in mere feelings. Real love is about showing up. It’s about helping out, even when – maybe even especially when – you don’t much feel like it. Real love is not measured in mere feelings.

This is the difference between boys and men, by the way. I’m not qualified to speak about the difference between girls and women – but I do know a little about boys and men. A boy – and of course there are lots of boys living into their 80s and beyond – will say “I love you” whenever he has a warm feeling. “Will you do the dishes?” “, but I love you.” “Will you help out with the shopping and the cooking and the cleaning?” “Well... I love you!” “Will you get off your butt and make yourself useful once in a while?” “I just love you so much.”

That’s not love. That’s delusion.

I’m not sure Don would have wanted me to turn him into a sermon illustration but, well, he picked a fine time to leave us (as the song goes). Because it just so happens that Don McIntyre’s life perfectly illustrates what Jesus is talking in our Gospel this morning. Because he’s talking about love.

In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott talks about this Biblical concept of love and about how confusing it can be. She tells the story about being in church: “....Everything was sweet at church, the singing, the kindness, and then the pastor had to go and ruin it all by giving a sermon about loving our enemies.”

She goes on to describe, in exquisite and hilarious detail, her magnificent effort at loving our president. Now, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, whether your challenge is loving McCain or loving Obama, I think all of us can relate to this challenge of how we not only love our neighbor, but love our opponents. In this age of electioneering and sloganeering, as we are in the middle of this enormous culture war, as these politics of division rend our country and each side paints the other in the most hateful and unflattering of terms – how do we love one another?

You know, I sometimes think that, for all the talk that Christians talk about love, we are more confused about that word than just about any other.

Because the Biblical idea of love is not what we usually think of when we consider that word. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Biblical concept of love may be one of the most misunderstood ideas in modern religion.

When we talk about love as modern western people, we tend to think of emotional states and in terms of longing and desire. In that respect love is often mixed up with what we want – what we desire, what we will have for ourselves. When I say, “I love ice cream” I’m talking about something I want for myself. I want to taste it; I want to feel it melting on my tongue. We can barely talk about love without putting ourselves in the middle of the equation.

But the Jewish concept of love – “Ahava,” which is the concept that Jesus understood – has nothing to do with your desire; it has nothing to do with your feelings; in fact it’s not about you.

When the Bible talks about love, with the exception of the Song of Solomon which is just a romantic love poem that someone snuck in there, it’s not talking about wistful staring at the moon or long walks on the beach. It simply talks about good deeds. It’s about showing up; it’s about doing what you promised to do. And that’s confusing to those of us who define love in terms of feelings.

In our gospel this morning Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment and he answers as any rabbi of his time would answer, which is to quote the great “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This is the defining first principle of Judaism. They would be among the first words memorized by a young child. And the very next verse explains what to do about this love:

6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

This is how we make this love real – we recite this love; we teach our children about this love; we bind these words; we fix them; we write them on the doorposts. This is why Judaism is so devoted to its commandments. God has given us all these ways to act out our love; this is what it means to love – here, do this. Then do that. All of the kosher laws of Judaism, all of the commandments, are nothing but expressions of love. They are vehicles by which we make God’s love real.

This is what Jesus was trying to remind us.

We know instinctively that when Jesus said “love your neighbor” he was not saying “have nice warm feelings toward your neighbors.” Not that Jesus had a problem with feelings – Jesus was a sensitive guy – he had his warm and fuzzy side for sure. And make no mistake – feelings are important. A man who is out of touch with his feelings is dangerous to the world. But Jesus was grounded in a higher standard for love than mere feelings. He was grounded in a Biblical standard.

This is difficult for us to grasp, because in our Western culture we have become so awakened to our internal states that we end up deeply confused. We are so hyper-sensitive to our internal emotional states that we allow them to control us. In the 60’s, it was “If it feels good, do it.” Now, if it doesn’t feel good, we won’t do it. If I’m not comfortable with you, I’ll avoid you. If I don’t like you, I won’t help you.

It even drives our politics. If candidates don’t make us feel something that we want to feel, we won’t vote for him, regardless of what their policies will actually accomplish in the world. It’s gotten to the point that the political debates are almost entirely judged on how the candidates make us feel, how successful they are in manipulating our emotions, rather than whether or not their ideas will work in the real world. And that’s just crazy!

And so we are deeply confused. People honestly believe that religion is impossible because it expects them to believe, as Alan Jones says, “ten impossible things before they eat their breakfast in the morning.” But it’s not about what you think; it’s about what you do. And other people honestly believe that religion is impossible because it asks them to feel something – love – for God or for neighbor not to mention their enemies – that they are simply not feeling. But again, that’s not what the Bible is talking about. Our love is not measured by our feelings. Our love is measured by what we do.

Sure, we are saved by faith. Faith is a gift, the work of the Holy Spirit. But as James and Paul both point out, if our faith does not lead us into good works, it’s not faith. It’s delusion.

These are the principles that make the difference between a good person and a great person; and they make the difference between a good nation and a great nation. Voltaire is credited with saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s a Biblical idea: to defend your neighbor’s right to speak, not because you like what he has to say, not because you feel warm and fuzzy by what he says, but because it’s the right thing to do to allow him to speak.

When the news went out that Obama traveled to Hawaii to visit his grandmother, who is very ill and might not live much longer, a bunch of his supporters sent cards and flowers of support. That’s very nice. But when McCain supporters sent Obama a card – now that’s Biblical.

As John says in his second letter, “This is love, that we follow his commandments.” What are his commandments? It’s simple: just show up. Live for Christ – no longer for yourself. And if Jesus seems just too distant or vague, think of Don McIntyre, who showed up, and showed us how: Don’t let your feeling states control your life; live by your deeper values; respond to your higher calling; do the right thing.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Who is Blessing Whom?

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

Today, we are blessing the animals – but the truth is, the animals do not need our blessing, do they? Are they not deeply blessed already? And do they not bless us every day?

Our religion is not like some religions, including other versions of Christianity, that say that the material world and all that is in it is fallen and corrupted. No – Anglicanism tends toward a “greener” theology, if you will – we tend to believe that all the world is, as Genesis says, “Good.” God created this world, with all its fishes of the sea and birds of the air and declared it to be good. Very good, in fact.

So we might bless our animals; but only in recognition of how our animals bless us.

Archbishop William Temple said, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all the great religions.” I think Judaism would argue, but the point is that the material world is not, for Anglicans, a place of darkness and evil but a place brimming over with the presence of God. And we have no better example of that than our pets, who every day show us what it means to be unselfconsciously alive in the Kingdom of God.

My Bernese Mountain Dog Penny is a great example of that for me. Every morning when she hears me coming down the stairs, no matter the hour, she gets up and greets me with tail wagging. And from that moment to the moment I climb the stairs at night to go to bed, she prefers to be by my side more than anything else.

If Penny had to choose between love and food, she would choose love. If we're gone too long from home, she simply won't eat.

And isn’t that true for most of us? When I visit shut-ins or folks in nursing homes, people who are very lonely, so often I find people who have simply lost their appetites. Without love, we lose our will even to eat.

Our pets show us what it’s like to live in unity with the Creation, and to live completely for love. They are examples to us of what life in full communion with God might be like: they do not carry the stain of original sin; they are not fallen; they have not disappointed God’s divine plan; which is why when we are with them we feel their blessing on us.

This quote has been attributed to several people in various iterations: “The more I know about people, the more I like dogs.” (Gloria Allred) But St. Francis would never have said that, would he? What’s amazing about St. Francis is that the more he knew about God, the more he loved people, and dogs, and birds, and cats and dogs.

This is perhaps the best testimony to his saintliness – not that he loved animals, but that he loved humans just as much.

St. Francis was in love with everything – all of creation; all of the animals; all of the humans – even the leper, whose face he kissed when he was still a rich young man. Even the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, the proclaimed enemy of the civilized world, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. While the rest of the Christian world was launching its crusade against the Muslims, Francis walked across enemy lines, fully expecting to be martyred, in a bid to seek peace and understanding.

What prevents us from falling in love with everything, just like St. Francis? Why can’t we be more like him, arms outstretched, in communion with all of nature all of the time?

Well, if we were to ask St. Francis that question, we might not like what he says. Because the depth of St. Francis’ love is linked with his love of poverty. “Sister Poverty” he called her, whom he took as his wife. For Francis, as well as for Jesus, poverty was not something to be feared but rather to be welcomed.

Given the economy these days, we might find some comfort in this – to know that what we fear most might actually draw us toward a path to the deepest joy we will ever know.

But the economy is worrisome. I was in the store the other day looking for dog food and noticed that a can of Alpo has gone up to a dollar. ...And you know, that’s $7 in dog money...

But seriously, folks...

Maybe we are not all called to the same level of poverty that Jesus and St. Francis were called to. But we can take some comfort in knowing that poverty is not the worst thing that can happen to us – and in fact, according to our saints, might even be God’s way of getting our attention and leading us into our deepest joy.

And if we are not aspiring to absolute poverty, we can at least aspire to spiritual growth. I love that bumper sticker: “Lord, help me to become the person my dog thinks I am.”

After all: To err is human; to forgive, canine.

Somebody say... AMEN.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why I Love This Church

Sermon Pledge Sunday
September 28, 2008

By the end of today’s last service, we will have heard twelve individuals or couples talk about their love of this church. Now it’s my turn.

I was born the 4th of five children; and it just so happens that I was a very beautiful child. I had these long lashes and big blue eyes and apple cheeks and I smiled and cooed a lot; and I grew into a slender boy with freckles and a little button nose and by the time I was in 6th grade just about every girl in the school was sending me love notes and I was on top of the world, the most popular boy in the school.

And then two things happened all at once. First, we moved from the country to the city and I was thrown into a big inner city Junior High School in Minneapolis filled with bullies and thugs; and second, my face exploded with terrible acne.

Now I’m not talking about the average teenaged bloom of zits. As you can see by the scars on my face, I had an extremely serious case; and it lasted well into my late twenties. There were times when the shape of my face was literally distorted by the clusters of enormous pimples. There were days when people would not even look at me.

I went from being a beautiful boy to an ugly boy in about six weeks. In fact, if I had been living in Biblical times, I would have diagnosed as a leper – severe acne was thought to be a form of leprosy; and indeed, at Jefferson Junior High, I was treated as one. Suddenly I was in the same boat with all the other rejects of society – the fat kids, the clumsy kids, the awkward kids, the sensitive kids, the gay kids. I learned what it was like to be one of the despised.

Now, when something like that happens to you, you quickly realize something: that the person you are, inside, is very different from the person that everyone sees. When people pick on you, and avoid you, and avoid even looking at you, you learn very quickly to rely on that inner sense of who you really are, as only you and God can see you.

And this became my little secret – a secret that I had to protect like a fragile egg – that no matter what people said or how people treated me, I was okay.

And I also knew this: that I would have to go through the rest of my life, protecting that secret – and sometimes it was less than a secret – sometimes it was just a hunch, just a vague memory – that I was okay; that I was lovable. There were times when I was so depressed I very seriously thought about killing myself – and the only thing that kept me alive was this secret, this fragile secret, that sometimes even I wasn’t sure could be true.

And then I went to college and I met some Christians. I met people who looked me in the eye, and saw me as I was inside. They talked about love – openly and without embarrassment – and they introduced me to an entire community of people whose mission it was to simply love one another as God loves us – and most especially, to love the outcast; to love the leper.

And I want to tell you something. When all your life you’ve been protecting this little secret that you are worthy of love - and a lot of the time even you don’t quite believe it - and then all of a sudden you meet an entire community of people who know your secret, and love you for who you really are, as a child of God, as a beautiful soul – something very powerful happens at that point. You finally begin to believe that your secret might actually be true.

And then, you see, you’ve finally got something to build on. You can finally begin to believe in yourself. You can finally begin to interact with others as a full human being. It becomes like a golden ladder, sent down to a man trapped in a sewer. When other people, in the name of God, embrace your full humanity, then finally you can believe it; finally, you have dignity; finally, you feel fully human and healed and worthy of love.

That’s what it feels like to have your soul saved.

As I’ve listened to the Witness Talks that people have given these past few weeks, I’ve heard a common theme – and that is Belonging. People speak about how much it means to feel welcomed here; to feel included; to simply be a part of this community.

And what is obvious to me is that this sense of belonging is not exactly the same as the kind of belonging you get from being a member of Rotary. Something else is going on here. And I see it every day. We are not just the body of individuals sharing space and common interests. This is not just a nice feeling that we get during coffee hour, at home with our friends. Somehow, our souls are being saved. Because we are joined in to the Body of Christ.

Christ has no body, now, but ours.

Earlier this week I paid a visit to a woman in a nursing home. She is an intelligent woman, who owned her own business for many years; she’s delightful to talk to, with great stories and sharp opinions – but recently she came down with a mysterious infection and the doctors can’t figure out and so they’ve put her in a nursing home because she’s too sick to go home and they don’t know when, or if, she’ll ever get better.

So now she’s in one of those medical twilight zones that we all have seen so often – when the doctors don’t know what to do with you so they just kind of stop talking to you – and so there she is in the nursing home, and it’s not one of those nice, clean, spacious nursing homes that smell good and have plenty of friendly staff. It’s crowded and not very clean; many of the staff barely speak English and the ones that do are too busy to spend time with her. She is confined to her bed and neither of her two roommates are capable of speech at all. She has no family in the area. So she can literally spend days on end, in discomfort and anxiety and no hope for the future, with no one to talk to.

So I came by. We talked for some time. I listened to her worries about her family. We laughed about the bad food. I taught her a new way to pray. We shared the body of Christ together. I blessed her and told her we'd be sending visitors to look in on her. When I left she was beaming.

She was no longer the leper. She was a blessed child of God. She is a member of the Body of Christ.

This is what we do as the Body of Christ.

You make that happen by paying my salary. We are partners in that ministry. Together we become Christ’s body.

In the paper a few weeks ago was a column by Nicholas Kristoff about a doctor – a woman named Halima Bashir – living in the Sudan working in a hospital when one day 40 girls between the ages of 8 and 13 were brought in, terribly injured by a brutal rampage of gang rape by the Janjeweed. The girls had massive internal injuries, and all she had to treat them was one half of an ibuprofen each. She didn’t even have enough sutures to sew them up.

When a few days later some UN observers came by the hospital asking questions she confirmed what had happened; a few days after that she was arrested and was told "now you will know what it feels like to be raped." And for weeks they tortured her and raped her. Somehow she survived and escaped to Britain. And she started talking to journalists again. When the bbc reporter asked her if she had any regrets for speaking out, she said none whatsoever.

I don't know if Halima Bashir is a Christian. But I know she is Christ’s body in the world. And that when we help people like her to speak the truth, we become Christ’s body. When we send $ to the Diocese, and that money goes to support refugee resettlement and Episcopal Relief and Development, we become Christ’s body in the world.

Last year, the Living Room placed 65 homeless women and children into permanent housing. 65 people -- former lepers -- who now have a chance to build a life for themselves. 65 people who have been told, loud and clear: you matter. You are worth this. We care about you. We see that secret hidden part of you that is worthy of love. And whenever we give money to support these buildings and grounds; whenever we drop off clothes at Heavenly Treasures or volunteer to cook breakfast or bring in toys at Christmas, we become the Body of Christ.

Whenever the choir sings an anthem; whenever our children are welcomed into Sunday School; whenever we build a house in Mexico; whenever we share donuts and coffee with a homeless man; whenever we welcome someone into worship; whenever we stand up for the dignity of every human being, we become the Body of Christ.

For me, this is not some lovely metaphor. We are not metaphorically the Body of Christ. I believe in the Real Presence. I’m a literalist on this matter. It is literally true for me – we are the Body of Christ. In this community, by the actions we take, by the love we share, by the money we give, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, flows through us and becomes real in the world. We save lives. We save souls. We are the Body of Christ.

And that’s why I love this church.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Busy busy

Recently we had to reduce our staff from two priests to one.


Which means I've been a little busier than usual... which isn't too healthy.

I've had to cut down on some things - including keeping this blog updated. And writing out my sermons word for word. Stuff like that.

Thanks for your understanding... I'll still be posting to this whenever I can. In the meantime, keep those prayers and emails coming! ML+

Sunday, June 29, 2008

God as a Verb... and other orthodox ideas

Note: this is Part Two of a 2-part series on the Creeds as interpreted by our Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Part One is not available as a text file but I can email a recording of it as a sound file if you'd like. Just post a comment to that effect and I'll take care of it. Maybe someday I'll learn how to post those here!]

If you were here last week you heard me promise that today I would continue a discussion of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ new book, Tokens of Trust. In this book the Archbishop examines the creeds of the faith in order to introduce basic concepts of Christian faith. And what he has done is this: he has dug deeply into the classical theology of the past, without being pedantic or boring or having a lot of footnotes, and shown how these classical arguments for God can profoundly deepen our modern faith.

But we have to begin by addressing this very disturbing reading from the book of Genesis, the famous story known as “the binding of Isaac,” in which God directs Abraham to prove his faith to him by sacrificing his only son, Isaac, on top of Mt. Moriah.

A lot of us read this story and we find ourselves reeling: What kind of God would ask a man to prove his faith by killing his only son?

So it is important to say something about this story, and about how we read the Bible as Episcopalians, which is with reason as well as faith; this is an ancient remnant from the days when human child sacrifice was commonly practiced – and contrary to encouraging that practice, this story was told to help explain why the people of Israel no longer did it.

While many of their neighbors practiced child sacrifice well past the day when this story was set to writing, the people of Israel felt called by God to discontinue that horrifying practice – and they told this story, in part, as a way of explaining why. Their God was a God of mercy; who provided a ram in the thicket, rather than an innocent child.

But this story is a story of mercy, not murder. And it’s also a wonderful example of how reading the Bible is like going on an archeological dig – we find these ancient stories that take us back to the very foundation stones of civilization. Here is a story that takes us right back to the moment when we as a culture decided to turn our backs on child sacrifice – and in the process set an example for other nations and cultures.

So what kind of God is this? A God of mercy.

Which brings us to our book by the Archbishop. What this Bible story teaches us, among other things, is that what we say about God is important. Who God is, what God demands of us, where God is to be found – these ideas about God that we carry around in our heads and that direct our actions in the world profound consequences. If our God is a god of vengeance, then we will literally worship vengeance, and we are likely to bring violence and hatred into the world. If our God is a god of prosperity, we will literally worship comfort and wealth; and as a result the poor will make us uncomfortable and we will dismiss both the poor and the discomfort they cause in us; and we will try to live our lives mixing with our own kind, avoiding those who are different. This is one reason why the Living Room is such a special ministry for us at Incarnation – because it constantly invites us to be in close proximity with people who are very poor. If they make us uncomfortable, there is something of God in that.

But before we go too far down this path, we have to remember that as soon as we start talking about God, as if God were an object like any other object, accessible to our thoughts, we start getting into trouble. I’m reminded of the story of the teacher who asked the young student, "What do you think of God?” After a pause, the student replied, "God’s not a think, he's a feel."

And yet... we can’t help but ask questions about God; God might be more of a “feel” than a “think”, but how can we live in this world without thinking about God?
The famous SF Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe understood this when he was looking at a simple box of Kleenex, and realized, “If there is no God, who pops up the next Kleenex?”

This is not a question answered by the Archbishop.

But the Archbishop does tackle issues nearly as weighty.

His first two chapters deal with this first phrase from the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible...”

And again, let me emphasize that there is far more material in these 2 chapters than I can begin to cover in two sermons. There really is almost a lifetime of sermons in these first 50 pages.

But one thing he does is to insist that we stop thinking of God’s creation as something that happened in some moment in the distant past. Rather, he says, we should think of God’s creation as happening at every moment – that God is creating and sustaining us constantly, right now.

For example, rather than thinking of God as having created light, like a lightbulb that just keeps shining from that first moment, he says God is more like the electric current that gives energy to the lightbulb. And that energy is flowing through us and in us and in everything that is – a super-abundant, ever-flowing energy that keeps everything from slipping into non-being. He says,

"It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it."

This is ancient, classical theology – Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century supports this view – but the beauty of it is how compatible it is with modern physics:

"Behind and beneath everything we encounter is this [creative] action [of God]. We may look at something that seems unmoving and unchanging, like the pillars of a cathedral or the peaks of a mountain, but what is within and beyond it is an intense energy and movement. The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God."

What does this mean for you and me? First, it means that there is nothing that is not held, supported, created by God. The Archbishop reminds us that in the ancient world, this was not necessarily taken for granted. There were many competing theories out there, many of which insisted that the material world was created by an inferior, second-rate god, or that everything material was inherently divorced from God – that the spiritual life had to do with escaping the prison of the material world in order to ascend to the ethereal realm of the spirit.

But that is not Christian theology, or classically Jewish theology. In our universe, God penetrates to the very heart of existence; God sustains every element of what is. That means that there is nothing in our lives that needs to be held in secret; there is nothing that we need to keep from God out of shame or guilt. God’s creative energy is constantly unfolding, even in the deepest, darkest regions of your life. There is nothing we can do, there is nothing that we can think, that isn’t already subjected to the light of God. We don’t need to live in the shadows. Everything about our lives carries the potential for redemption and reconciliation.

The Archbishop says that when we say that God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, that means that there is “the possibility of an integrated life, not a life where some bits of us have to be covered up or swept under the carpet....

"There are the things in my life that I’m aware of, there are the things I’m not aware of – and there are the things that I try not to be aware of, that I’m ashamed of or frightened by. But all that I am is the working out of what God has made; some of it has worked out well, some not so well; I have learned to make good use of some of what God has given me and I’ve made a mess of some of the rest or just haven’t come to terms with it. Saying that God has made us in our entirety and is concerned about all of us isn’t, incidentally, the same as saying that anything we choose to do is fine – only that every aspect of who we are needs to be brought into the circle of God’s light, because he can deal with all of it. And that also means that we shouldn’t be surprised if Christians are interested in things like politics or economics, art or sport, and have awkward questions to ask and contributions they want to make. There are no areas that are essentially off-limits if God is truly the Creator of this world."

It is this majestic doctrine of God, this ancient doctrine that has its roots in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, that gives Christians the courage to let God into every aspect of their lives: not only what they are doing at noon, but what they are doing at midnight.

We could go on and on, but I will close with this final point, which is that the Archbishop resurrects the classical notion that what we can know about God is through what God does, not what God is. Who or what God is – that’s an impenetrable mystery. But what God accomplishes, what God does – that is knowable. We can see that with our own eyes – through the life of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God is drawing the world to himself. God is reconciling us, one to the other, and the world to God, through the action of love.

Buckminster Fuller once said that “Love is metaphysical gravity.”

Love is what draws us together; love is what draws the world to God; love is at the heart of everything that is, seen and unseen.

It’s for this reason that you find me focusing so often on the action of God. As you may have noticed, I much prefer to speak of God in terms of what God does. I say, “In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life” -- because that draws our attention to what God is doing – and that is far more knowable, and far easier to talk about in simple, descriptive terms that are true, without putting the being of God in a box. And it is for that reason that I often refer to God as a Verb – as the great mystical traditions and classical theologians would encourage us all to do – not that God is not also a noun, but that it does God far more justice to talk about God in terms of what God is doing.

Which is also why I like to say, about this place – that “God happens here.” To me, that is the most accurate thing we can say about our community. God happens here. If you ever are tempted to start a sentence with the phrase, “God is...,” let the next word be a very: God is being born here. God is living here. God is healing here. God is weeping here. God is laughing here.

What is God accomplishing in you? What is God accomplishing in us? How is God happening?

God is happening here. God is creating us, right here, right now. Praise be to the Living God!


Monday, June 9, 2008

June 8 Sermon Part 1: Prophets vs. Priests

Sermon preached by the Rev. Matthew Lawrence

Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa

June 8, 2008

Part 1

Text: Hosea 5: 15-6:6; Psalm 50: 7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving

And make good your vows to the Most High. Ps. 50:15

I’m hoping that many of you recognize these words, which we recited during the Psalm reading this morning. This of course is one of the Offertory Sentences that the priest can use when it is time to turn the congregation’s focus from the passing of the peace to the Eucharist. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

We find a description of the "sacrifice of thanksgiving" in the book of Leviticus, which was distinguished from a sacrifice of sin, otherwise known as a “guilt offering,” or a “sin offering.” In the old days a casual observer might not have been able to tell the difference between a sacrifice of thanksgiving and a sin offering; from the outside it pretty much looked the same: it involved the sacrifice of an animal on the altar, along with the offering of grain in the form of cakes made with leavened flour and oil.

No, the difference was not so much how the sacrifice was performed, but the intention behind it, and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In one case, one is asking God to overlook a failing or a sin. It’s not unlike paying a bribe – you’ve failed in some way, and you ask God to receive the sacrifice in order to win him over and spare you from judgment. But in the other case, you are offering the same animal and grains, not as a bribe, but as a gesture of thanksgiving – for the birth of a child, for a good harvest, for just the simple joy of being alive.

Two very similar rituals – almost indistinguishable – but for the intention.

The author of the Psalm offers us a glimpse into one of the classic tensions we find within the Bible – between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Many of the books of the Bible were written by priests, who had an interest in purity and ritual. Leviticus often times reads like a priest’s handbook – really, it functioned in that way, filled with detailed instructions on how to perform various rituals. At various times in Israel’s history, the priestly class was the dominant class – they not only performed the sacrifices, they controlled the sacred connection between God and the people – and they also were the dominant political power in the kingdom. In alliance with a king, for example, seeking to consolidate his power, they would institute religious reforms that concentrated power in Jerusalem and the temple cult. They issued purity laws that forbade marriages with foreigners, for example; they expelled or killed anyone who worshiped a foreign god; they saw to it that everyone was practicing the same religion and marching to the same drummer. And to them, it was a matter of national security. This, they believed, was critical to winning over God’s favor – and it just happened to coincide with winning political power for themselves. Their influence in the Bible, especially in the Pentateuch, is very strong.

But there is also another voice that we hear from in the Bible – a voice living in tension with the priestly voice. That’s the prophetic voice – it’s a subversive voice; a voice that challenges the priestly class, and in the process challenges the political power structures of the day. We find that voice this morning -- and it almost sounds like Jon Stewart from the Daily Show, it has this delightful teasing quality, which directly goes after the priestly class:

I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me. .. All the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills; I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?

In this Psalm, the challenge is playful, even humorous. But it is also, like a lot of political humor, extremely dangerous – because the author is directly challenging the very source of the priest’s power: the idea that we can cover up our sin, and avoid the consequences of our sin, with a bribe to God.

This challenging voice, this voice of direct confrontation against those in power, is found again in the words of the prophet Hosea, also read this morning, who stood outside the gates of power and railed against the people in charge. And again, this challenge is to the idea that we can hide our guilt by bribing God, as if God could be bought with sin offerings: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

It was in that ancient tradition of prophetic and challenging speech that Jesus came -- and in our Gospel this morning directly quoting Hosea -- inspired by the Holy Spirit, to confront once again the people in charge, including the priests who were collaborating with the Roman Empire and imposing strict purity codes and Temple taxes on the people to keep them under control, while they skimmed gold off the top. And if you want to learn more about this, and you have not already read Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I highly recommend it.

And so Jesus came and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple – collaborators in a money-changing racket to increase the wealth and power of the priests by means of a purity code. And so Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, and told stories about priests who were so consumed with their ideas of purity that they passed by a dying man on the road rather than risk contamination. And so Jesus sat down with the impure in society – the tax collectors and prostitutes and the sinners – not necessarily because he enjoyed their company, though I believe he probably did --but because by doing so he was once again openly defying the powers that were in charge. By challenging the purity codes of his time, Jesus was going after the very foundation of power and political control, and he was openly calling to task the political corruption that went with it and reminding us all, in Hosea’s words: “Mercy, not sacrifice, is what I require.”

And then finally we have Paul, who begins to interpret Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the final and ultimate sin offering. As Paul sees it, there is no more need for guilt offerings. Jesus has become the final sacrifice; if there was a bribe that needed payment, it has now been paid in full. We live now redeemed, and free from the law. Because we are free, now, from this extortion system, this bribery system with God. If ever it was true, and the prophetic voices had been questioning it all along, at least now we can all agree that finally, once and for all, the only sacrifice we are called to make is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We are called to open our hearts to God, fully assured of God’s mercy. This is our calling. As he suggests in our reading from Romans, we are freed from the law and the wrath that it brings; we are freed from an overbearing priestly class daring to impose themselves between God and us; we are freed from the manipulations of power-crazed clergy determined to keep us feeling guilty, so that they can take our bribes and stay in power.

I’m saying all this so that when you hear me, now and again, engaging in prophetic speech, you know where it’s coming from. It is not coming from a knee jerk liberal simply spouting the propaganda of the Democratic Party. It is coming from a priest who is willing to engage the subversive traditions of our Bible; and who asks us all to engage Scripture in its own sense and meaning.

---end of Part 1---

June 8 Sermon Part 2: Gay Marriage

---see Part 1 for Biblical context---

Last Friday some of you might have seen a letter to the editor that appeared in the Press Democrat, written by yours truly. Whenever my name appears in the paper, it’s probably good idea to give it a little context to know where it’s coming from.

A little over three weeks ago, the California Supreme Court found that marriage is a “basic civil right of personal autonomy and liberty” “to which all persons are entitled without regard to their sexual orientation.” About a week later, I received an email from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, announcing that in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling, and in the spirit of Jesus, they would be adopting a Marriage Equality Resolution, which, as the title suggests, promises to “treat all persons presenting themselves for the rite of marriage equally.”

As I was pondering this action, I received a letter from our bishop, in which he re-stated his position regarding same-sex blessings, which is that despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, he cannot authorize such marriages until General Convention – which is our national decision-making body – authorizes them.

As some of you may remember, our General Convention, last time it met two years ago, debated this subject rather strenuously, and the outcome was not entirely clear. For lovers of ambiguity, we got a snoot full. While it is true that General Convention did not authorize same-sex unions, it is also clear that it did not expressly forbid them. The truth is that they were split on the issue – but not for reasons that one might think. The debate was not over the merits or demerits of gay marriage, itself – in fact, that was almost immaterial; the debate was over how far we could go down this road before we would be kicked out of the Anglican Communion, and whether or not that was an acceptable price to pay for what a clear majority of the House of Deputies considered to be the just thing to do.

The language that the House of Bishops came up with – language that was rejected by the House of Deputies – was that they would not be authorizing “any public rites of same-sex blessings.” This language passed because it was sufficiently ambiguous – leaving open the option of holding private rites – blessing ceremonies held in homes and in parks -- which have been happening for many years in the Episcopal church in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. And, indeed, in several other dioceses of our church, including Massachusetts and San Francisco, public rites of same-sex blessing have also been held in churches – just not with “authorized” rites.

So, while our bishop claims to be constrained by General Convention, I do not fully understand or agree with his interpretation of those decisions.

Now, all of this leads us to the letter that I wrote to the Press Democrat, in which I basically stated my position, speaking for myself, that while my bishop prevents me from holding such ceremonies in the church, I am not personally opposed to such ceremonies; and in a later interview with a Press Democrat reporter that you might be reading sometime this week, I indicated my interest in meeting with any couples who wished to explore how we can bring God’s blessing upon their relationship. I do so with the standard criteria we apply to all such relationships: that they be monogamous, that their commitment be life-long, that they be deeply consensual, that both parties feel they are entering into a sacred union, and that they are members of our congregation.

So that’s my position; and this is not a position in defiance of our bishop. I have sent a letter to our bishop telling him of my position, which is somewhat different than his, while also saying that I respect his concern for the unity of the church, and for the need for process.

We are in a difficult time: do the interests of church unity outweigh and veto the interests of civil rights? And it is clear that now, this is, as a matter of law, a civil rights issue. At what point do we follow our conscience, and at what point do we submit in obedience to our church and our bishop? I took a vow of obedience, and I believe in the authority of bishops -- that’s why I’m an Episcopalian. I also believe in the order of the church.

One of my favorite magazines, The Christian Century, recently published a pair of articles about the tensions we are experiencing in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. One of them, written by Jason Byassee, opened with the following:

Last year the Church of the Resurrection in suburban West Chicago closed its doors and put its building up for sale. The Episcopal congregation had suffered membership losses 14 years earlier when some conservative members left to start their own church, also called the Church of the Resurrection, in nearby Glen Ellyn. The new congregation later aligned itself with the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMIA), which is connected to the Anglican Church in Rwanda.

The new Church of the Resurrection later experienced its own split, with some members leaving to launch the Church of the Great Shepherd – also affiliated with AMIA – in Wheaton. The Church of the Great Shepherd eventually closed its doors, but not before a 2004 split led to the formation of the Church of the Savior back in West Chicago. During this time the ranks of St. Mark’s, an Episcopal congregation in Glen Ellyn, had been swelling – until the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop in 2003, whereupon many St. Mark’s members left to form All Souls, still another AMIA church, in Wheaton. Meanwhile, another split at the original Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago, which had experienced renewed growth, led to the creation of the Church of the Resurrection Anglican, a church which is overseen by the archbishop of Uganda. So now there are two Resurrection churches in the area, both formed in exodus from the original – now defunct – Church of the Resurrection, and both affiliated with African Anglican bodies, not with the Episcopal Church in the United States.... (Jason Byassee, “Splitting Up,” The Christian Century, Vol. 125, No. 10 (May 20, 2008), p.22.)

The article goes on to speculate as to why these churches have split so many times, and quotes the Episcopal bishop Chicago, William Persell: “If you’re formed in opposition and negativity, you’re bound to keep on splitting – there’s always the need for more purity, and you don’t live with ambiguity very well, so you end up in a church of one.”

This is a beautiful illustration of what happens when a church decides to defy its bishop and throw to the winds the church order that we’ve inherited over centuries. I don’t recommend that for any church, including our own; while I also reserve the right to disagree with our bishop, which he understands.

So that’s where we stand right now; and in a week or two we will hold a forum in which we will discuss these issues in greater length, especially as they relate to our General Convention. As a Deputy to General Convention, it is my job to be talking about these things, and I look forward to pursuing the conversation further – so that we might continue to shed more light, and less heat, on this issue.

All of this comes, I hope, with your prayers, as we pray continually for our church, and for the great and continuing faith to which we are called; a faith that does not make us comfortable; sometimes a faith that challenges us into disagreement. Through it all, I pray that we will continue to know that we are all called, not to agree with one another, but to love one another. As long as we strive to love one another as Christ loves us, we can bear any disagreement with grace and joy. Pray for grace; pray for forgiveness; pray for love.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Sermon preached May 11, 2008

Pentecost 2008

It’s good to see you this morning. Rose and I got back from our vacation in Minnesota last Monday morning. It wasn’t exactly exotic, but it was probably the most restful vacation we’ve ever had. And we’re happy to be home now and to see you.

This morning we celebrate the miracle of Pentecost; the day when a universal language was discovered – the language of the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been praying for a little bit of that universal language to return. Because everywhere I look, I see people struggling to find the words – the magic words – that will finally bridge the gap between strangers and lead us into true understanding.

I think about the terrible situation in Myanmar, and of all the diplomats and aid workers searching for the right words that will convince the military rulers over there to let them in so they can save some lives. Last night the BBC reported the death toll is likely to exceed 200,000; and I find myself wondering how many of those lives could have been saved if we had just found the right words to communicate across this enormous gap of culture and politics and mistrust.

What would the world be like if we could just instantly understand one another perfectly?

I think of the Iraqis, the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds and now the Americans, all of us locked into relationships of misunderstanding and struggle, with endless differences between and among them and us, and the violence that erupts for lack of understanding – what would the world be like if we were blessed with perfect understanding across these great divides of culture and politics and religion?

If we just had the words, the perfect, right words, that could bring us together...

But you don't need to be in a war zone to have this yearning for the right words. We all feel this yearning, whether it's with our spouses or partners, our children or neighbors... so many times when we feel that if we could just find the right words, our relationships would be so much more significant.

And then there’s you and me, right now – as I was writing this sermon, I was searching for just the right words... and now here we are, looking at one another, examining our faces, straining to connect across our differences, looking for the words – the right words, the magic words – that will help us connect to one another and to God.

What would it be like if we had instant, perfect understanding of one another?

This is why sometimes I ask you to pray for me as I’m preaching – because true understanding only comes when both parties are listening deeply and straining to understand together in the light of God's presence.

Of course, that’s when the magic happens – that’s when the magic words are finally found and true understanding is achieved – not because of the words themselves, but because of the spirit, the intention, the mutual interest and love, that draws two parties together to seek understanding.

The other day Rose and I were having lunch and there were two young people at the table next to us, and you could tell they were in love by the way they were leaning across the table toward one another, so that their foreheads almost met; and their faces were beaming with that eagerness of understanding;

you could see them connecting;

they were like thirsty camels drinking in water at the end of a march across the desert -- you could see this kind of Pentecost joy on their faces, as they were finally connecting with someone; finally that loneliness;

that long aching loneliness was over.

Finally, you could see it in their faces, they were both thinking this: finally, here is someone who understands me; finally, here is someone truly interested in me – just as much as I am interested in her.

It’s a beautiful thing to see, this thrall. Rose and I noticed them, and it was as if we saw ourselves in the mirror; and we turned and looked at one another; there we were, after 25 years of marriage, still finding ourselves in one another’s eyes; still leaning across the table

still talking and listening to one another,

still finding the magic words...

So it’s no wonder that when God appears on the earth, he is referred to as the Word.

Before there ever was the Bible, there was the Word; as John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word,”

and by word he didn’t mean a book; he meant this sacred, magical point of connection;

this thing that happens between souls, leaning across a table, or across a universe;

this Word with a capital “W” who became a living breathing human being, who does what words do

connects us to one another, and to God, in a way that no one else ever has.

Lately I’ve been aware at how deeply we long for this Word; for this connection. Whenever I visit someone in the hospital, or the nursing home, or a homeless person, or someone in prison, you can feel this longing for connection. There’s this level openness that you don’t see so much in everyday life; you walk into the room and immediately someone is holding your hand; looking you in the eyes; listening closely and saying things they maybe never would say if they weren’t so opened up by their circumstances; so vulnerable, and so open for connection.

Which is why I think Jesus said, in Matthew 25, that if you are looking for him, go visit someone in prison;

go to the homeless shelter and listen;

go to the hospital and hold someone’s hand.

That’s where you’ll find him

the living Word

connecting you to God.

And when you are there, leaning toward your friend in the hospital bed, praying and speaking words of love, you know that you didn’t decide to come there; you were led there – by the Spirit of that connection you were led there. It’s like two magnets, who once they are within a certain range of one another, an invisible force draws them into connection. The Spirit led you to that bedside. The Spirit that is found in connection.

You do that enough times and then you begin to see every relationship in those terms: you let the Spirit draw you into deeper connection with everyone in your life – your spouse or partner, your neighbor, your children. Suddenly life seems too short to push those relationships aside; suddenly the Spirit is drawing you into more truth telling, more intimacy, more revelation of God’s Word for you.

And that’s when we begin to live a Spirit-filled life. We begin to have the conversations that some people only have on their death beds. We decide not to wait for disease to open us up to one another – we choose to live our lives on a more authentic level.

And that’s when the miracles start to happen – because then the Spirit takes over; the Spirit draws people of the Spirit together; the Spirit brings us into new relationships and new connections that are life-giving to us.

And that is how we find ourselves here. We didn’t decide to come together; we were drawn together by the Spirit. And as we continue to open ourselves to this Spirit and this Word, we find the Spirit drawing us together in fresh new ways

a fresher kind of community begins to emerge;

a fresher community of care;

a community of connection;

a community of mutual vulnerability and trust

and a deep love;

a love that has its Source not in ourselves, but in the Spirit that flows among us

that deep well

that living water

As the Spirit leads us,

We all drink from that well

This is the water that Jesus was talking about in today's gospel; and in the story in which he encountered that Samaritan woman – that person so different from him – such a gulf between them, of culture, language, religion, gender, politics – and yet there they were, leaning across the table toward one another, led by the Spirit:

"...Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

And that’s how our church was born, on this day of Pentecost, some nineteen hundred and seventy five years ago, when all of a sudden, just as Jesus predicted, a disparate group of people, representing all the different nations and cultures and languages of the known world, leaned in together, breathed in the Word of God, and became people of the Spirit.

And in that moment, everything that separates us is overcome. The legacy of the Tower of Babel is overcome; finally our universal language isfound again; finally our great long loneliness is lifted.

Pray that we will continue to let the Spirit lead us into ever deeper relationship; pray that we will continue to listen to God’s Word, spoken at the depth of our hearts; pray that we continue to seek to understand, as we are understood.