Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Flicking Your BIC: Christmas Eve Sermon

In Chicago, in the summer time every year, the city hosts a Blues Festival. Thousands of people turn out for this festival; they gather in Grant Park and listen to some of the all time great blues musicians in the world. People like Coco Taylor, BB King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells....

Now this is a festival for the blues; a festival of sorrows, if you will; because the blues were invented to help people deal with the pain in their lives. In other words, this is not the kind of crowd that stands up and flicks their lighters and holds them aloft during the concert, is what I’m saying.

So about a hundred years ago, or more precisely some time back in the mid-80s, Rose and I were at the Blues Festival and we were sitting behind this young teen-aged boy; he was all alone at the concert; and by the looks of him – all freshly scrubbed and carefully dressed - we knew he was from the suburbs. But it was clear that he had been to a rock concert before, because half way through the performance he got out his BIC lighter and flicked it and held it up in the air.

And this young man did not appear discouraged when no one else flicked their BICs. For the entire remainder of the concert, he kept at it, holding up that lighter and looking over his shoulder with a hopeful look on his face, waiting for that magical moment when the entire crowd of thousands would be waving their lighters and swaying side to side, inspired by his example.

And as the night wore on, the look on his face grew only more and more determined; he didn’t give up – not until the very end, when the final chord was struck. And as the applause died down my heart went out to him, that lonely hero of hope; that brave soldier, shining his light against the darkness, come what may and no matter how silly he seemed to a jaded and cynical world of blues.

Since those days, the world has only grown more full of the blues; it seems to me that the world needs that young man now more than ever.

But some days, if you look hard enough, you can see that little BIC lighter out there. When the nights are darkest, the stars are their most brilliant.
It was in the middle of one of the darkest moments of Israel’s history that the prophet Isaiah caught sight of that light - but it wasn’t a little flickering BIC that he was describing when he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The year was 735 BC; the kingdom of Judah was facing annihilation by Assyria – the greatest power in the known world. What hope could they have? The prophet Isaiah saw the look on the king’s face; he saw that the king was without hope and that he was more aware of his weakness than of his strength. And so Isaiah spoke these words to help King Ahaz get things in perspective. Don’t forget, Isaiah was saying, that the Lord your God is a great God; don’t forget the promises that he made to us. Keep your hope alive, Isaiah was saying. Assyria is nothing compared to the kingdom promised to us under the house of David.

But the king didn’t listen to Isaiah, and instead basically gave away his kingdom to the Assyrians.

Isaiah must have felt a little like the young man at the blues festival, looking out over a sea of darkness: am I the only one around here who is willing to hope?

When the nights are darkest, the stars are their most brilliant. I imagine it was a dark night, indeed, in that little town of Bethlehem so many years ago, when the star appeared from the East. The people of Israel were desperately poor, living under a brutal army occupation. Torture and terrorism were commonplace; and hope was in very short supply. And yet, in that darkness, the star appeared.

On the night of September 11, 2001, I was among a few religious leaders invited to address a crowd of over 12,000 students who had come to the center of campus to pray. Somehow, there were enough candles for everyone – the Catholics brought them. Where they got their hands on 12,000 candles I will never know. And while we prayed for peace on that very dark night, the candles were lit – at the front of the crowd, first, and then spreading toward the back until it looked like a vast galaxy of stars.

If you were alive then you might remember the pit in your stomach; the sense of panic just beneath the surface; the fear and the grief and the uncertainty. But as those candles were lit; when we took in the sight of just how much light can be thrown against the night when people decide that it is time to hope – well, it was a sight to see.

But toward the end of the prayer vigil we ran into a slight problem; we hadn’t quite thought through a fitting way to end it; as the last prayer was spoken there was a moment of uncertainty; the crowd started to shift their feet; no one wanted to leave. And that’s when a priest among us on the stage took a step toward the crowd, and in the silence and the confusion, lifted his candle high above his head.
I don’t believe I will ever see anything more beautiful than the sight of all 12,000 of those candles lifted up. It was, to me, as if an angel appeared over a sea of shepherds, and said, “Take heart. Do not be afraid.”

There are days when I read the newspaper and my memory of that voice seems very distant indeed.

Just yesterday there was a crowd of Muslim pilgrims in Iraq, reverently marching to a holy shrine in Karbala. They endured five separate bomb attacks; 47 pilgrims were injured; five were killed.

In November, 88 Iraqi civilians died at the hands of terrorists. The good news is that this is the lowest number of civilians killed since the invasion in 2003.

In Mosul, Christian churches have been bombed six times during the past month. Three people have been killed so far, including a baby.

It’s enough to make you forget the voice of that angel, speaking words of peace.

And so tonight, when I hold my candle against the darkness, I will be praying for the victims of warfare and terrorism, wherever they may be, whatever their creed.

Tonight, when you hold your candle against the darkness, what will you be praying for?

Closer to home, we have our own challenges. Many of us are reminded, every Christmas, of what we have lost. We can’t stop thinking about Christmases past, when times were better: when we were healthier, when our beloved families were still intact; when our loved ones were still counted as among the living.

When I raise my candle tonight, I will be praying with my brother, who on the other side of the earth is praying that this will not be his last Christmas. I will be thinking of my Mom, and all the ways she made Christmas so special; and I will be thinking of our beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, who died last Christmas.

Tonight, when you hold your candle against the darkness, what will you be praying for?

Many of us have lost jobs, some of us have lost our homes; some of us are struggling against addiction or depression. Tonight, when I raise my candle against the darkness, I will pray for my loved ones’ economic relief.

What will you be praying for?

Let your prayers be heard tonight; this of all nights – because Christ comes to a homeless couple living in a barn – to give us hope even in the face of poverty; Christ comes to us in fullness and light, to heal us even in the midst of our illness. Christ comes to us in wartime, to teach us how to find peace even in a world of violence and desperation.

Let your prayers be heard tonight - of all nights.

Sometimes I wonder about that young man, that hero of hope who held his BIC lighter up at the concert. I wonder if he ever found the courage to flick his BIC ever again.

Sometimes, when things haven’t gone our way, we will decide never to hope again. We might think we are alone in a vast sea of cynical people, all of them battling the blues, and we might decide just to join them; give up on hope; not embarrass ourselves again. But maybe what it means is that we’ve been flicking our BICs in the wrong place; maybe instead of a blues festival, we might try flicking our BICs somewhere else – like maybe in a church. Maybe it wouldn’t feel so different if we surrounded by people who have learned to pray rather than to complain.

Maybe that is what brought you here tonight. Led by your own star to this sacred place; surrounded on all sides by other heroes of hope.

Tonight, when you lift your candle, you can trust you are not alone. So let that hope that is within you, that uncreated flame of God that burns inside you, raise you up. Join your voice with angels and archangels; proclaim the goodness of God; and rejoice that here, in this place, Christ our savior is born.


Note: at the end of the worship service, the lights went out and we all lit our candles while singing "Silent Night." At the end of the hymn, I stood at the altar and silently raised my candle. Gradually, everyone else did also. It was a gorgeous thing to see.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gospel Truth - Hard Truth

Advent 3, 2009

In my sermon two weeks ago, I talked about all the themes of repentance and coming apocalypse that are contained in the readings for Advent; after the service one of our members said, “You know, I never noticed that before. And to be honest, I just ignore all that stuff anyway.”

I suddenly got a vision of John the Baptist 2,000 years ago; it’s a clear, sunny day in a village in Galilee and he arrives in the town square and starts fulminating with this sermon we hear this morning. A group of shoppers gathers around him and listens politely while he wades in on them: “You brood of vipers, the wrath to come, the winnowing hook, the ax laid at the roots…”

When he’s done there’s a moment of silence; the crowd blinks, someone says, “Eh,” and everyone walks away.

“Who was that guy,” someone says? “Eh, who knows? Some guy, talking crazy…”

In other words, what I’m getting at is that we tend to hear the sermons we want to hear; we tend to believe what we’ve decided to believe ahead of time. When someone comes along with an inconvenient truth – some fact or bit of evidence that doesn’t fit with what we already have decided to believe, we will simply not notice it – literally in many cases. Social psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”

We all do this – no one’s immune. The other day our deacon, Pamela, told me that [name of delicious candy withheld] – which happens to be one of my favorite foods – have, of all the candies, the highest quantities of insect parts inside them. She even told me the story of how, on two successive occasions, she bit into one and found – well, I don’t want to spoil your breakfast, but it’s like the old joke: what’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?

Half a worm...

Now, I have no reason to think she made that story up… but on the other hand, you know what? “Eh!” I’m not giving up my favorite food.

We hear what we want to hear – and if we are unfortunate enough to be stuck in church while the preacher goes on a John-the-Baptist rant about broods of vipers and winnowing hooks, we’ll just wait him out and then say, “Eh.”

It’s a tricky thing, being a preacher – you hate the idea of people saying “Eh” while you’re preaching… you want people to actually hear the truth of God as it has been revealed to you… you know that it doesn’t do anyone any good to get all John-the-Baptist-y on your people because it’s only going to drive them away – but on the other hand there is this truth as you understand it; and you’ve made a sacred vow to represent that truth.

How much to challenge, how much to comfort – a tricky question. It’s especially tricky because we’ve learned a few things since the days of John the Baptist. We’ve learned, for example, that anger and shaming almost never helps a situation. Neither does fear. John the Baptist had no problem pointing his finger in anger, scaring them into listening, shaming them into repentance.

But even the gloomiest of the gloom-and-doom prophets tended to balance their messages with visions of sweetness and light; it’s as if they knew, intuitively, that anger and punishment only gets us so far. Even Zephaniah, as gloomy a prophet as ever there was, has this section that we read this morning (Zeph. 3:14-20), full of exultation and joy and the promise of a better tomorrow.

I think it’s this knowledge that anger and fear and shame only get us so far that leads some of us to dismiss the judgmental words of the prophets so quickly – maybe a little too quickly.

Some of us grew up in households dominated by an angry, punishing person. The image of John the Baptist yelling and ranting only serves to reignite the traumatic experiences of our childhood and we have no hesitation to dismiss it.
Of course. That makes perfect sense.

Except, of course, the truth is that whatever John the Baptist was angry about, it had nothing to do our childhood traumas. I wonder if for some of us a different response might be possible; I wonder what might happen if we were able to not get triggered by our own issues and consider whatever it was that John the Baptist was really angry about. Maybe we would discover that it was something that we, too, were angry about – and rightly so. And this then would invite us to explore our own issues with anger.

Most of us have anger issues of one kind or another. The anger of the prophets might just alienate and frighten us. But there is such a thing as healthy anger, isn’t there – when it is expressed appropriately and safely? Of course, we are Episcopalians – we are, if nothing else, polite unto death. But there is such a thing as righteous anger, like the anger of the prophets.

I don’t mind saying I get angry. I get angry over the way our immigrants are treated; I get angry when people I love can’t get basic health care; I get angry at the millions of dollars the drug companies are spending to keep it that way. I get angry that no one seems to get angry anymore.

Maybe you have your own righteous anger. I hope you do. The Bible is clear: anger at injustice is no sin; righteous anger is a blessing.

And Jesus, also, is clear: shame and fear are never helpful.

When Jesus comes across the mob about to stone the adulteress – this is the ultimate act of shaming, isn’t it? - he says, “Those without sin: cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)

He doesn’t shame anyone; not even the people with the rocks in their hands. Instead he points to the fact that we all sin; we all are in need of repentance.

I knew a man back in Boston – a good man, a member of this big prestigious church I was going to at the time. He lived in a nice house in a wealthy suburb outside Boston; but he had a shameful secret, which was that he grew up in a violent home. He was physically abused often by his angry and shaming father; and as an adult, to his enormous grief and shame, he found himself hurting his wife.

Then one day his priest – a mentor of mine – got a call from this man’s wife. So he paid them a visit. This priest was a gentle man. He didn’t threaten and he didn’t scold. He made sure that the wife was safe; and then he made sure the man understood three things: first, that his secret was out; second, that there was no need for shame; and third, that help was available.

Somehow that priest told the truth in a way that the man could hear; and on that day three things happened: he confessed his sins and asked for forgiveness; he moved out so he would no longer be a threat to his wife; and he started getting some help.

This was the good news gospel truth for that man and his wife: that they were not alone – everyone is imperfect and there is no shame in admitting that, no matter how nice your house is – and that there was a way out. They did not need to be trapped in their cycles of anger, shame, and loathing. They were blessed.

Sometimes the good news is hard news. But this is the good news of Jesus Christ: that no matter how much shame we feel, we are blessed. No matter how loathsome we think we are, we are loved. In our deepest failings and our worst sins, we are forgiven.

This is what gives us the courage to face our failings. That’s all that God asks of us: that we take a breath, and confess the truth of our lives, ask for help, and accept the help that is offered. God takes care of the rest.

This is the Good News: it is what inspires Paul to say these words of joy:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hope in a cynical age

Sermon: Advent 2 (Year C)
December 6, 2009

Last Friday, David Brooks in the New York Times wrote about the difference between how Democrats felt during the presidential campaign and how they feel now. He said "Many Democrats are nostalgic for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign - for the passion, the clarity, the bliss-to-be-alive fervor. They argue that these things are missing in a cautious and emotionless White House."

Well, I don't know what Democrats Mr. Brooks has been talking to, but his remark got me thinking about hope and disillusionment; and about John the Baptist.

Some of us have experienced the ups and downs of hope and disillusionment more than once in our lives. In the 1960’s, baby boomers like me experienced an almost eschatological hope – a hope so strong and so widely shared that it seemed to be driving history and leading us to a kind of ultimate fulfillment – and then we all experienced deep disappointment when the ideals of that time didn’t materialize.

It’s no secret that I was a child of the sixties – and I literally mean “child.” In February, 1964, I was 7 years old and my life was permanently changed when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. From then on, my siblings and I spent hours strumming tennis rackets and listening to Beatles records.

The summer before I turned into an official teenager I saw a news report about Woodstock on the CBS Evening News and I thought that this really was the dawning of a New Age - that the entire world was about to break out into a giant festival of peace and love. It seemed that this force for goodness was so massive, so irresistible, that soon we would all be singing our way back to the Garden.

Four years later I was somewhere north of here, hitchhiking along a country road looking for a commune I had heard about. A guy with long hair – a hippy, I thought, and therefore completely trustworthy - stopped to give me a ride. I'll never forget my confusion when it turned out the guy was a complete jerk –ill tempered, cynical, and inclined toward not very nice criminal behavior.

How can this be, I thought. He's a hippy ... But he's mean! How is this possible? It took me a while to make sense of this: that anyone could grow his hair long.

Disillusionment. Whether it came in the form of Martin Luther King’s assassination, or Altamont, or just some trash-talking creep with long hair, disillusionment is as much a part of the 1960s experience as was the Age of Aquarius. And yet, we don’t talk as much about it. By the time 1980 rolled around and the former yippee Jerry Rubin was found working on Wall Street, the heady days of Woodstock seemed like a hopelessly naïve, and sadly distant, dream.

In our readings for this morning you might have noticed the Canticle which took the place of the psalm. This is the famous Canticle 16, the Song of Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father. And it is as exquisite an expression of Woodstock idealism that we will ever hear in the Bible.

Remember the context of this event. It has been 500 years since there last was a prophet in the land of Israel – 500 years since the spirit of God raised up a leader who could convincingly speak for God with words of power and truth. The land of Israel has been occupied for far longer than that – a nearly unbroken chain of disasters as army after army occupied the land - Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and now the Romans – who are just about breaking the back of the people.

But now, stories of a coming divine intervention are being told again – subversive stories, whispered at the risk of being arrested for sedition. As in days of old, the people are beginning to hope again. This Canticle, sung with glee by John the Baptist’s father Zechariah at the time of his birth - is a song of hope – an outpouring of hope after 500 years of despair:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; He has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David…. This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear…”

And with hope comes resistance against the Romans – mostly rag-tag groups of guerilla warriors who wage hit and run operations against the foreigners.
Most of these guerillas were religious zealots, inspired by the prophecies of old and ready to believe again that God would bring a new covenant to his people along with a Messiah to restore the fortunes of Zion by chasing out the oppressors. The guerilla warriors got their ideas from groups like the Essenes, those spiritual athletes who famously preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The core of the Essene community was based in remote parts of the desert, far from where the Romans could find them; they were the original desert monastics, spending their days in study and prayer and fasting and rituals, including a ritual with water that may have been where John the Baptist got his idea. They may not have been warriors themselves, but their preaching throughout the land of Judea certainly inspired the warriors, who were desperate for something to hope for; eager to believe in a Messiah who would overthrow the Empire.

Scholars believe it is highly possible that John the Baptist came out of these one of these communities.

We have an extremely rare, independent historical record of John the Baptist, written by the historian Josephus, who himself led an uprising in Gallilee. As a prisoner of the Romans he was an eyewitness to the final destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

According to Josephus, John the Baptist was extremely popular and successful as a preacher; so popular, in fact, that Herod worried he would lead an uprising. So Herod had John the Baptist arrested and killed.

Little did Herod know – that once that hope was unleashed, it could not be crushed so easily.

Hope is a dangerous thing. It can make us wildly naïve; it can inspire us to do stupid things; it can set people up for profound disappointment. And it can inspire a people to do things they never before thought was possible; it can change the course of history.

These days, it feels to me that hope is the most important thing in the world. And something of a rare commodity. It is so important for us to believe that we can meet all the challenges that confront us. Hope is so instrumental in our ability to turn the corner on all of our challenges: the economy, the environment, health care, you name it. And there are so many voices of fear and doom trying so hard to drag us down to a place of disillusionment and cynicism.

And for those of us who have been deeply disappointed by big hopes in the past, it is easy for us to give a little too much credence to the voices of fear and cynicism. But positive change never comes about from cynicism.

If it is true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, it is also true that hope is our only hope. It need not be a naïve hope; there is such a thing as a realistic hope. Once we get in the practice of hoping, and in the practice of being disappointed, we can actually learn from our hoping, and we achieve what Reinhold Niebuhr would have called a realistic hope.

We are a religion of hope. For all of these centuries, we have been telling stories of hope. And when our hope is fixated on a very particular end, often times we’ll be disappointed. But hope is not about the particular thing we think we’re moving toward; no, hope is far deeper than that; hope is the very life of our soul; hope is this engine within us that is fed by a living God; hope gives us the capacity to stand up, look to the future, and address the challenges that are coming our way with a positive and fearless energy. That’s what hope is.

I would say that hope is the presence of the Holy Spirit within us; it is that which has, over the centuries, given our particular religion its momentum and force; and in this season of Advent it is a particularly compelling thing for us to focus on.

So during this season of Advent, I invite us into a deeper exploration of the sources of our hope; so that as life’s ultimate disappointments come our way, we have the strength and the courage to meet them head on, with joy and with trust.

Somebody say, AMEN.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting Beyond the Santa Claus God

Sermon Nov.29, 2009

Last week I was at one of our local establishments on 4th St. with my friend, the Buddhist Unitarian pastor. I was quite pleased to find beers on sale there that are named after Christian theological concepts: Redemption, Salvation, Consecration Temptation, even Perdition.

I said to my friend, “Aha! This proves that my religion is better than yours! My religion is so great, they named their best beers after our central concepts.”

He replied, “No, this proves the opposite - that my religion is better.”

“How’s that? Nothing of your religion is represented here.”

“Exactly.” he said. “It’s a Zen thing.”

So anyway I was happy to learn there was plenty of Redemption on hand and that it was reasonably priced. Hoping he’d take the hint, I bought my Unitarian Buddhist friend a pint of Perdition. He drank it down with alarming equanimity.

So this is the first Sunday of Advent – the season that teaches us all about the discipline of spiritual waiting. Henri Nouwen called it “active waiting” – the kind of waiting that involves paying attention, especially to what is changing in us, to what is being born, and to what is becoming possible.

This is the kind of waiting that pregnant women know so well. During Advent, this sanctuary becomes a kind of womb; we pay attention to the terrifying mystery of all that is changing within us and around us. We sense that there’s something big happening. God is looming somewhere – or is he lurking? We dare to trust the possibility that as terrifying as life may seem, God is in the change.

In the Bible readings during Advent, there’s a lot of talk about apocalypse – like our reading from Luke this morning.

I hope it isn’t absolutely necessary for me to say this, but I suppose it is important that periodically I remind us that Episcopalians do not tend to think of the apocalypse as a real historical event that is going to happen on some date certain. Not that there’s anything wrong with believing that, of course, and there are perfectly faithful Episcopalians who do hold that belief. But it’s safe to say that for most of us, the apocalypse makes more sense as a metaphor for how we experience God breaking through.

This morning we hear the story of Jesus telling his disciples about the day of apocalypse:
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Luke 21:26)

Most of us know something about “fear and foreboding.” Cancer diagnoses, financial catastrophes, teenagers – we all have had our own little apocalypses, our moments of divine catastrophe, when the veil is lifted; those moments that find us on our knees, begging for a miracle, asking “Where is God in this?”

And sometimes we get an answer: Wait.

And then, in a prayer, in a dream, out of the corner of our eye, we sense it coming. There’s ozone in the air; a flash of lightning on the horizon. We sense the possibility that there might be blessing in what we were sure could only be catastrophe. On that day, Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)

And just to be clear now, I’m not talking about beer anymore.

I’m talking about active waiting.

Our children learn the discipline of active waiting very well during Advent - because there is no event more actively waited upon than Christmas. Our children are living in keen anticipation, counting every day ‘til he comes “in a cloud (well, okay, in a sleigh) with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)

When I was a child during Advent the first thing I would do every morning was go to my Advent Calendar and peel off the little door for the day. Inside there would be a little chocolate surprise – this is why I love Belgian chocolate so much - and there would be a little picture and a Bible saying, and then, stepping back, you could take in the whole calendar and see the progress you were making toward the day of his coming.

And for four solid weeks we would be singing that song of Active Waiting: "Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not shout I'm telling you why...."
Thanks to Santa Claus, Advent and Christmas has become a little religion unto itself, complete with its own sacred scriptures, scrupulous rituals, moral codes, and pantheon of deities (Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, all those elves and reindeer).

In fact, I think that if Santa Claus didn't exist, we would definitely have to invent him. Now, I know some people complain that Santa Claus has become more important to our children than Jesus – and I agree that’s troubling. But on the other hand, any religious cult that inspires a 5-year old to make his bed is not all bad.

But at some point we grow up and find other reasons for making our beds. In my case, it’s my marriage - which I wish to preserve.

I heard Karen Armstrong the other day, talking about her new book called The Case for God. She said that Christianity’s problem is that so many people learned about God around the same time they learned about Santa Claus. When we’re children, God is just the big Santa Claus in the sky; and then we grow up, our ideas about Santa mature, but our ideas about God don’t.

I think she’s absolutely right; I see this all the time: as long as our lives are going well and we’re getting our little gifts under the tree, we think God likes us and we like God. And then one day we wake up and we’ve got a lump in our breast and it feels like a lump of coal in our stocking. And we say “Hey! What’s the deal! I’ve been good! Where are my gifts?” And when we don’t get a satisfying answer we blame our Santa Claus God, and we blame our religion for having lied to us.

This is perfectly normal. The truth is that we all cling to the god of our childhood as long as we possibly can; we can spend our entire lives listening to grown up sermons and reading the gospels, the pages of which are packed with stories of a grown-up God, and we will nonetheless continue to believe in a Santa Claus god until we have our little apocalypse, and we are forced to find a God that is appropriate for grown-ups.

Most of us are here because this is where we’ve found that grown-up God.

Many of you have been asking about my brother, who has been enduring his own little apocalypse recently in the form of some rather aggressive brain tumors. I want to thank you again for all the prayers and cards and inquiries about him. Just to give you an update, he survived the surgery well, which removed one tumor; there’s another one that they couldn’t operate on; thankfully it hasn’t grown since he began chemo and radiation treatments. But we were sorry to learn that two more lesions showed up in the last brain scan.

This is my brother’s apocalypse; and because we are connected to him by our love, it is ours as well. By our love, we all share in one another’s apocalypses; and collectively, globally, through hundreds and millions of individual apocalypses shared in love, the great cosmic revealing occurs. The entirety of human experience stands before God as if on the plains of Megido; the trumpet sounds; the veil lifts; we hold hands and lift our heads; and our God bears down upon us like the seven horsemen. Our illusions disintegrate; and what we find on the other side depends on our ability to express our love; hold fast to one another and to the blessings we find here, and to trust.

And so we stand with all of humanity: we raise our heads; we pay attention to the good; we honor our relationships; we find our redemption.

By so doing, our post-apocalyptic God – suitable for grown-ups - is born.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's customary for pastors to send out a Christmas letter every year. Here's mine for 2009.

Christmas letter, 2009

The news this evening is that unemployment in California is now the worst since the Great Depression. Add this fact to the usual woes and worries (wars, flues, ungrateful children) and Christmas cheer starts to feel more like Christmas jeer – a joke played on us by the god of irony.

It seems that more and more of my friends are either taking anti-depressants, or should. It’s downright depressing! And it actually makes me wonder: “What good is this religion if it doesn’t make them happy?”

And then I wonder how Mary would have answered that question. Thankfully, after hearing the angel’s invitation and foreseeing her own heartbreak, she shifted her gaze up – to the difference she could make, and she said “Yes.”

I have studied the religions of the world somewhat seriously and I have yet to find a magical formula that causes bluebirds to break into song and encircle my head. The purpose of life is not defined by how we feel. True religion is about, well, the truth; and while the truth will set us free, it will also set our feet gently onto the ground, where we can be of use to others.

When everything seems bleak, it’s easy to let our feelings take over. We might even think we will always feel this bad – but that’s just the blues talking. Advent teaches us a truer lesson, which is that sometimes life involves what Henri Nouwen called “active waiting.” “The secret of waiting,” he said, “is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”

Advent teaches active waiting. Yes, things are tough – and yes, God is happening. Life is change; goodness erupts; tough times pass. Meanwhile, we join with Mary. We breathe the labor pains of love. We nurture the fragile lives in our care, including our own. We open our doors to the homeless. We feed the hungry children. We say “Yes” to our divine purpose – and in the process, we find a joy that would shame a bluebird.

I pray you might join us this Christmas – and discover the real joy of the season. I say this in the name of God, who, like me, rejoices at the sight of you.

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector 

According to Mental Health America, “on average, people living with depression go for nearly a decade before receiving treatment, and less than one-third of people who seek help receive minimally adequate care.”

Depression is neither a moral nor a spiritual failing. Your blues may be nothing more than a bio-chemical condition, or the product of perfectly natural factors like stress, anger, fatigue, or unemployment. Sometimes good counseling makes all the difference; you might also benefit from a pill. Why not take advantage of what modern science has to offer?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Last Measure of Devotion

Last Thursday afternoon a 34 year-old police officer named Kimberly Munley was on her way to getting her car repaired when she heard over the radio that shots were being fired. According to the news reports, she was there within three minutes; she saw the suspect chasing down a wounded soldier; she fired at him, he returned fire, and then, as she was trained, she started running toward the man who was shooting at her.

Sergeant Munley is five feet four inches tall; by the looks of her she weighs less than a bird. But she has the spirit of a lion. Yesterday she was recovering from her three bullet wounds, calling friends, and expressing regret that she hadn’t gotten there sooner to save more lives.

This morning we will add the names of the 13 men and women who were killed at Ft. Hood to our usual litany of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And following the command of Jesus, we will also pray for the enemies of peace, wherever they may be, at home and abroad - because the world could use the mercy.

So this Wednesday is Veteran’s Day – a time for us to honor all those who, like Sergeant Munley, have faced into the fire. Some, like the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg that Abraham Lincoln honored, have “given their last full measure of devotion.”

That line is so stirring and poetic – “Their last full measure of devotion.” President Obama used the same line when he honored the 18 soldiers who died in Afghanistan almost two weeks ago.

The phrase hits home, I think, because, while very few of us can imagine what it’s like to be in combat, we all know what it means to give our devotion.

Yesterday on the radio I heard the true story of a young woman who was in a relationship with a married man. She was 22; she was young and beautiful and impressionable; and he was very rich. He bought her a Mercedes convertible, a luxury townhouse in Greenwich Village; magnificent jewels and furs. And he lied to her, all the time.

She soon found out about his lies, and they shamed her. But the biggest shame came from the look on her parents’ face when they came for a visit. They stepped into her million-dollar home, they looked around, and right away they knew what was going on - and they could barely speak, they were so embarrassed for her. In the presence of her parents, her guilt came home to her; she realized how much she had lost, by gaining so much.

She tried to break up with the man but he kept drawing her back in. She felt miserable and trapped and powerless over him. And then one day she got word that her parents were in a terrible car accident. Her mom had broken 80 bones; her dad was in a coma. Within minutes she was packed and out the door to be with them. And, she said, at that moment she knew she would leave him for good.

Sometimes our devotion lies dormant, asleep beneath the surface, until something happens to wake it up. And then, we’re in the air; or like Sergeant Munley we’re in the car, flying to the edge of everything. We find ourselves running toward our truth; running toward the moment that our lives were made for; we have found the object of our devotion, even the cause worth dying for, and we are pouring ourselves out; we pouring out our devotion, and in the process finding the truth of who we are and why we were born.

In our Gospel story Jesus is standing opposite the Temple, watching the rich people put in their huge donations. Then he watches a poor widow put in her two copper coins, worth a penny.

Jesus praises her – "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The Greek word used here is “bios” – the same root as “biology” – it means living. In other words, she is giving not just her possessions – she is giving her whole life. The full measure of her devotion.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, whenever Jesus talks about money he is talking about the state of our spiritual life. He is not impressed by those who give out of our abundance. No, Jesus pays attention to the beggars among us; those who have nothing left; those who have flown to the edge of everything – everything that stands between them and God.

Inside, in our deepest hearts, in our truest selves, in that place where nothing separates us from our life in God, we, too, are beggars. When we pray, we go to that place – or we’re simply not praying.

Yesterday Rose and I drove out to Jenner and watched the waves rolling in – massive waves, crashing on the rocks, water flying up in every direction, spectacular explosions. There we saw a woman, a small woman, way out there, standing on the beach very close to the rocks. At the edge of everything. We watched with dread and amazement as the waves crashed around her, each wave threatening to overwhelm her. She was magnificent; she was strong; she was crazy, we thought. She got drenched and she was fully alive.

As Ireneus said, “The glory of God is a [person] fully alive.”

Someone recently came to me and asked to be baptized. She didn’t want to be politely sprinkled with a few drops of water; she said she wanted to dive in to the waters of baptism; to be completely immersed in God’s ocean; to let the waves of God completely roll over her; so that she could give herself completely to God.
She is called to give the full measure of her devotion.

We are all here, standing at the edge. This is why we are here. We have found a God worthy of our full devotion. And so we give it.

When I was 17 I had only one question on my mind: is there a God? It seemed to me the only question in the world. If there wasn’t a God, that was fine – I could go ahead and make my parents happy by becoming a journalist or a doctor – but if there was a God, there was no choice; I would have to become a priest, or a monk, or join an ashram, or travel to Tibet – wherever I needed to go; whatever I needed to do. Because why would you do anything else?

And so that summer I was standing by the side of a road in Oregon hitchhiking to Portland and all of a sudden I was swept up in a brilliant swirling power of energy and love; it was my Road to Damascus moment and I knew: Yes! God is alive! So what else could I do?

It’s like, there’s a man outside handing out diamonds – what are you going to do, sit down and read a book?

People sometimes ask me about my prayer life; they seem to think that as a priest I should be sitting in a corner somewhere saying some special words. But I say my whole life is a prayer; this is why I got ordained; this is why I stand before you today; I am giving God my devotion with every breath.

Prayer is not something you do with words; it’s what you do with your life. It’s jumping out of your car and running toward a man who is shooting at you. It’s standing before the fire.

And of course it’s countless small things, too. It’s visiting a loved one in the hospital. It’s saying a kind word. It’s making a phone call.

This is the secret – to fly to the edge of everything, and give ourselves up to the Holy God. We turn our backs on this ordinary world and all that is in it; because all the luxury cars and mansions and pearls and diamonds in all the world are worth nothing compared to a copper coin given in full devotion. We fly to the very edge… and say Yes.

I heard someone recently say that after a very long and full life he had finally discovered the secret of happiness – but by then he was senile and forgot.

I am here to remind us. It is devotion. Devotion is a practice; it is a way of being in the world; it is a way of deep giving.

The Sufi poet Rumi said it well:

If you are here unfaithfully with us,
You’re causing terrible damage.
If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
You’re helping people you don’t know
And have never seen.
Is what I say true? Say yes quickly,
If you know, if you’ve known it
From before the beginning of the universe.

So says, Rumi, to which I say, “Amen."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Beggars of Mercy

Sermon: Oct. 25, 2009
Text: Mark 10:46-52

I need to begin with a word of thanks to all of you who sent your words of support and offered your prayers for my brother’s surgery – it means a great deal to me. Having been away as much as I have, I return all the more grateful for you, and to you.

My brother came through the surgery very well. He has always been athletic, and at the age of 55 he was healthy and strong before the tumors in his brain showed up. That health is making his recovery much easier. His prognosis, however, is still very sobering. So I thank you for your prayers, and beg you to keep them coming.

The waiting room at Veteran’s General Hospital in Taiwan is not like waiting rooms in the United States. First, it’s not really a room; it’s more like an airport terminal: a large open space with probably 100 or so chairs all facing in one direction, lined-up in rows and bolted to the floor. The walls are high and white; at the front of the area is a large flat-screen TV which, thankfully, never gets turned on. A large sign with lights and numbers on the wall tells you when your loved one is out of surgery, and a very loud voice on a loudspeaker tells you where to go to see him or her.

But in one respect, at least, it is just like every other hospital waiting room anywhere in the world; because it is filled with people praying, almost always silently, privately, and desperately, to whatever God that will listen.
And in that respect it’s no different from this room here, saturated, as it is, with our sometimes desperate prayers.

Over the years, these walls have absorbed countless cries for help. Like Bartimeaus in our gospel reading this morning, we become beggars of God’s mercy: “Son of David,” we cry, “have mercy!”

Over the past two weeks, sitting for hours on end in that hospital, I’ve been reminded, once again, of what it’s like to pray those desperate words. My siblings, my brother’s wife, and my father have all entered into a kind of sober fellowship with other beggars for mercy.

One day while we were waiting to go into the intensive care unit a family came into the hallway – 8 or 10 people, Chinese, of course, at least 3 generations. My father and I stood up to offer them our seats, they politely refused; and we refused to sit down. So we just stood around for awhile, awkwardly staring at the floor and the walls and the empty seats – for a moment it was just like being back in Minnesota, we were all being so polite. After a time we exchanged friendly glances; someone in their group who spoke a tiny amount of English asked me where I was from; I said, “California;” and they all recognized that word and repeated it, and someone said “Surfing!” and everyone laughed. And then, having exhausted our shared vocabulary, we grew silent again. After a few minutes I noticed one of the daughters in the corner, weeping quietly.

That was the sum total of the words we exchanged. I don’t know if they were Christians or Buddhists or what, but in that silence I knew we were sharing the same prayer: “Lord, have mercy!” We could have been monks at that moment; or beggars by the side of the road, who, no matter what was going on around us, kept up that quiet chant, “Lord, have mercy!”

When Bartimeaus, the blind beggar, gets his chance for mercy, he takes it; and he doesn’t take it quietly. He shouts out his chance, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” He has reached that point of desperation; he doesn’t care about propriety; people tell him to pipe down but he shouts it out, all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then Jesus stands still, and speaks to one of his disciples, and the disciple comes to him and says, “Take heart, he is calling for you,” and – this is my favorite part - immediately Bartimeaus leaps up, and throws off his cloak, and runs to Jesus.

It is my conviction that this story is given to us as a kind of contrast to the story of the rich young man, which is found earlier in this same chapter of Mark’s gospel. In that story, as you will remember, the rich young man, full of propriety and wearing beautiful clothes, completely confident in his ability to meet any challenge, asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.

Notice: his language of ownership - as if salvation were just another thing to acquire; and something due him. He doesn’t ask for mercy; he doesn’t need healing of any kind; he is strong and rich and the world is his oyster – just point the way, he says, full of confidence and competency: tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
So when Jesus says, “Take all that you own, and sell it, and give the money to the poor, and follow me,” the rich young man immediately does the opposite of the blind beggar; rather than throwing off his cloak and following Jesus, he clings even more tightly to his cloak; he takes a step back, and withdraws into a life of emptiness.
I have always had a fondness for the rich young man; I imagine his clothes so beautiful, just as they are illustrated in our stained-glass window behind the organ; that beautiful jewel perched on his velvet hat. His dilemma is so poignant and sad. I’ve always imagined that, many years later, after the young man had grown older and wiser, he finds another community of Christians, and this time he doesn’t ask to inherit eternal riches, but rather asks, simply, for mercy.

You see, in the Gospels, wealth is never about money; wealth is about attachments, and pride; wealth is about the ways in which money separates us from God by feeding our illusions. Jesus is constantly pointing out to us the illusions that money brings: the illusion that we own it, rather than that it owns us. What better illustration of that than the rich young man, whose possessions control him so completely as to deny him the ultimate joy?

Money gives us the illusion that we are deserving of our wealth; which is the opposite of gratitude, isn’t it?

The neurosurgeon who operated on my brother’s brain in Taiwan, one of the top neurosurgeons in Taiwan, makes a tiny fraction of the salary an average brain surgeon in the U.S. makes; he works 7 days a week, he gets no vacation time, and he lives in a dormitory next to the hospital. A dormitory! By any professional American standard he is poor and oppressed – and it doesn’t occur to him that there’s anything wrong with that. He is grateful for his work and his life. Meanwhile, his counterpart in the U.S. is richer than God, and strides the earth like a Titan; and for him, gratitude is a nice idea.

The poor have so much to teach us. In our own poverty, whether it’s a poverty of spirit or a material poverty, God is so near.

In the gospels, wealth and poverty are symbols for the spiritual life. And more than symbols: our relationship with money is a living testimony to who we are as people. Someone once said that a checkbook is a moral document. Jesus would agree with that. How we spend our money speaks volumes about our values.

And so you can see how I’m working my way toward Pledge Sunday…

Yes, today is Pledge Sunday and in a moment we’re going to hear Pat and Linelle encourage us to reflect for a moment on our giving to this church. And, I guarantee you, unless we are the greatest of saints, we will all have our little “rich young man” moment. A variety of thoughts will come into our heads. Some of them will be downright cynical: “Oh, here we go again, how much will they want this time?” We will find ourselves clutching our cloaks just a little more tightly and we will instinctively withdraw.

We all do this. “Here comes the preacher with his hand out.” Even I think this! While I’m writing this sermon I’m thinking this: “What’s he gonna ask of me this year?”

And of course, they will ask of us what they ask of us every year, which is to pray over our giving. That might be the hardest thing. They will ask us to reflect on what this church means to us; what our life in God means to us; what our checkbooks say about us. They will ask us to take a breath; and to move beyond the rich young man moment of resistance, into something more closely approximating Bartimeaus, flinging off his cloak and running, unrestrained, unrestricted, with joy in his heart, to the feet of Jesus.

And they will also mention something called proportional giving. This is of a piece with everything else we’ve been talking about. Proportional giving has to do with the ancient practice of acknowledging that everything we have comes from God, and to God we offer the first fruits of our lives. Instead of looking at what we have left at the end of the month after we’ve paid all our bills, proportional giving asks us to think about the whole of our income – whether we’re rich or poor – and dedicating some portion of that to God.

You will notice that they will not suggest to us what portion of the whole to give; whether that be 10% or 1% is entirely up to us; they will not advise us as to whether we should calculate this on pre-tax or after-tax income; they will not even suggest that we give this portion to the church. Indeed, there are many worthy charities begging for our money. They will simply suggest that we consider our giving as our first fruits, acknowledging God as the source of all that we have, resisting the clutches of our possessions on us.

But Pat and Linelle will suggest that the Biblical standard of 10% is a goal worthy of our striving; and they might even suggest that we consider making the commitment to working toward that goal, increasing our giving by 1% each year: so that if I am giving 4% today, I might strive toward 5% next year.

Rose and I have prayed over this, and despite the fact that our income has taken a hit with this recession and we still have a child in college, we will once again, as we have before, increase our giving along that continuum. We do so joyfully, and with deep gratitude for all the riches of this life, and we encourage each of you to do the same.

We give thanks to you; we are grateful for all that you bring to this church and all that you do to the glory of God; and we give thanks to our most generous God, to whose glory we are dedicated.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Living a Life of Promise

Sermon Sept 20

James: "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."

Last Sunday we were talking about promises: what are the promises that define your life – what are the promises that you have made to yourself, or your spouse, your children, your parents, your community, your God?

In the wisdom of the Church, we say that it is a good and life-giving thing to periodically review the promises that we have made. The promises of our lives are like the tires on our cars: it’s a good idea to inspect them once in a while, before they blow out while we’re driving down the highway at 70 mph.

Sometimes we outgrow the promises we’ve made and we need to recognize that. When my son was born I held him in my arms and looked into those miraculous eyes and made a sacred promise to him: that I would never let anything or anyone hurt him. Then one day he learned to walk, and the next day he learned to run - full tilt into the corner of our dining room table. I realized how impossible that promise was; but I still tried. By the time he was old enough to make his own decisions I was still trying – still trying to protect him from anything that would hurt him – until I realized that no one grows up who has never been hurt.

I needed to re-evaluate that sacred promise I made to him.

So what about our promises to God?

65 years ago, on a cold winter night in France during the Battle of the Bulge, my dad was huddled in a foxhole, shivering with cold and terror while artillery shells rained down around him. Death was as close as his breath; he could taste it on his teeth. He began to pray as he never had before; desperately, deeply, as if his life depended on it; and he found himself promising God that if he ever got through this war alive, he would become a doctor and dedicate his life to saving others.

This became a sacred promise that was to shape the rest of his life.

Once when I was a little boy I asked my mom, "What does daddy do all day?" She didn’t say, “He’s a doctor.” Instead, this very fierce look came over her, and she said, “He saves lives. Every day, he saves lives.” This made quite an impression on me.

That sacred promise that my dad made defined the rest of his life. It set the bar for the level of excellence that he would strive toward. It called him out of himself, from being a cocky, self-centered and smart-alecky kid into a deeply disciplined and caring man. Every day for the rest of his working life he rose before dawn, and got home long after sunset, and was often called back to the hospital in the middle of the night; and he never once complained - because he knew he was one of the lucky ones. He had survived the war - and he had found a purpose for his life. He had found a way to give back to God just a little bit of what God had given him.

But he didn’t accomplish this on his own. By making that promise to God, he enlisted God’s support; God met him half-way; God helped him keep his promise – because it was a sacred promise. That's the nature of a sacred promise - God meets you half-way.

In the letter of James this morning, we hear these words of advice: "Submit yourselves therefore to God… Draw near to God; and he will draw near to you."
When we make a sacred promise to God, we take a step toward God; and God takes a step toward us. We never make it alone; God is making it with us; as we draw near to God, God draws near to us.

What are the sacred promises of your life?

I have to confess I have never been able to understand people who have never made a sacred promise; whose lives are not guided by a sacred promise. To me they are like a tent without tent poles – what holds them up? What sustains them? What gives their life structure? Without tent poles, a tent is just a formless mass of nylon lying on the ground. But with the right tent poles, our lives take shape; our lives become the lives that God intended.

Now, I suppose you could make a tent without tent poles - with just the stuff you might find lying around – sticks or branches or what not – but they won’t fit us; they won’t stretch us. Truly sacred promises, like tent poles, are made exactly to fit the tent. When we make the right sacred promise to God, our lives expand to their maximum capacity. And our lives become a shelter for others.

Some of us raise ordinary promises to the level of the sacred - we promise to be good according to some Sunday School notion of the good: we promise not to stand out, not to ask too many questions; not to ask too much of anyone: we promise to make money: we promise to obey someone else’s promise that we never fully believed in.

When we do that our lives become tents with tent poles that are too short - our tent sags, blows in the wind, falls down often, never reaches its full height: leaks in the rain. Our promises are too small; we have been living too much for ourselves; we are not stretched to our true proportions.

Instead we lie awake at night listening to the water dripping through our walls, haunted by the question: is this it? Is this all there is? We get up in the morning and we notice in the clear light of day the tent sagging even more, despite our best efforts, and we feel gravity pulling us down into a resigned accommodation. Because we have not made a promise worthy of our life in God.

Even when things seem perfect we are haunted by the knowledge that perfect isn't good enough. We remember the old TV commercial: old friends gathered around a dinner table somewhere in Maine; lobsters steaming on a plate; beer glasses cold and full to the brim, laughter and love flowing; and someone says, "Here's to good friends - it doesn't get any better than this," and they clink their glasses and you think, "Really? Is that it?" Because as good as it is, it feels like there's still something missing. It isn't enough.

And the next day our tent just sags a little more.

And life goes on; our sacred promises become like stars dimmed by the lights of the city; our life as it was meant to be becomes a fragile memory: something impossible and theoretical, like a faded sketch that has been lost.

What is to be done?

And now at this point in the sermon I have to beg your indulgence because it might feel like I've stretched this tent pole analogy just about as far as possible but I'm going to take it just a little further:

What is to be done? Easy - we just write away to the manufacturer - we place an order for new tent poles - new sacred promises to give our lives structure. We pray to the Creator that the sustaining purpose of our lives will be revealed to use before we die; and that we will have the courage to let that promise define the remainder of our days.

But as we write that letter to the manufacturer, we realize we will have to enclose a check. We will have to decide, How much are these tent poles worth to us?

And we hear the voice of Jesus: “How about your whole life?”

“For what does it profit us if we gain our life, and lose our soul? For those who would save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, shall gain it.”

We write away to the manufacturer for those new tent poles; but if we put in a check for a dollar, or five, or any amount that looks like we have not considered what these tent poles are worth to us, our check will be returned uncashed.

Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

When we're at church around stewardship season and someone suggests that we give to the church proportionally; that the visible and real extension of our promise - our pledge - to God might begin to bear some relationship to the value of our life: if, instead, we respond to that invitation by becoming smaller, or cynical, or worse, by saying to ourselves, "Well what's in it for me?" – then I suggest we are pitching our tent with sticks.

Your tent is better than that – your tent is bigger than that.

On the bottom of page 304 and the top of page 305 of our prayer books [and listed below], we find five tent poles, if you will; five sacred promises that, when made seriously and prayerfully, give our lives structure and purpose. These are promises that are God’s way of drawing closer to us, as we draw closer to God. I’d like us to take a moment to look at them. And as we go through them, I’d like you to ask yourself two questions: Which of these five promises seem like the easiest for me to keep, and which would be the most difficult?

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

[Discussion follows - congregation breaks into pairs - what some people identify as the most difficult, others identify as the easiest; we realize that as we live together in community, we can honor all of these promises collectively, and with joy.]

Pray that we may find the sacred purpose that God has for us; pray that God will provide us with the strength and courage to hold up our end of our promises to God and to one another; pray that in all things, we will find our completion in Christ.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Returning, refreshed and ready to go

Sermon: September 6, 2009

Good morning!

The last time I stood in this pulpit was way back on April 12 - Easter Sunday, 4.5 months ago. Since then I have been away on an amazing sabbatical. And the first thing I have to say to you upon my return is this: thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for this incredible gift that you have made possible.

I feel a little bit like the man who went on a journey in search of treasure, and he found it, but it was too heavy for him to carry home, so that when he got home he could only talk about it; and the more he tried to convince his audience of the fabulous treasure he found, the more unbelievable he began to sound.

Nonetheless I am going to try.

Some aspects of my sabbatical are quantifiable: I traveled about 30,000 miles – 5,000 miles more than the circumference of the Earth. I spent at least one week in 9 different cities or towns. I finished 12 books – six for pleasure, including three Jane Austen novels, and six books related to my studies in congregational development. I wrote five academic papers and endured 200 weary hours inside a classroom.

But I also spent countless hours walking through the desert canyons in Utah, the woods near Tahoe, the forests in Minnesota, and the absolutely stunning mountains and valleys of New Zealand. And best of all, I spent a whole lot of time just sitting, alone, quietly, for hours at a time, in the presence of trees, and rivers, and lakes, and mountains, and oceans. I can’t tell you how precious that time was.

A lot of my sabbatical time felt like waiting – waiting for the big moment, the stunning revelation, the bolt of lightening. So I’m a little bit disappointed, and also quite relieved, to report that I did not see any angels descending on beams of sunlight; no unicorn emerged from a forest; I did not slay any dragons or rescue any maidens. I’m pretty much the same person I was when I left, except for one very important difference:

I think God has finally answered for me the question of what I’m supposed to be doing here in Santa Rosa, California.

Next week I’ll go into more detail about what exactly I mean by this – it’s too long of a story for just one sermon. (At the coffee hour this morning, someone said she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I said, `Oh, it’s not a shoe. It’s more like a mukluk.’)

This morning I just want you to get a sense that something important has happened to me.

And part of it has to do with the simple magic that happens when you can finally get some perspective on your life. For me, this sabbatical has reminded of what it is that is ultimately important to me; what I most deeply care about; what it is I’m willing to live for and fight for and maybe even die for.

All I’ll say about that right now is that this is what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian means that you have clarity about the divine purpose of your life. To be a Christian means to know that you have work to do in this world; and that deep down inside you, where God lives, you know exactly what that is.

But it’s so easy to lose sight of that. You know how it is – in the busy, day-to-day dimension of our lives, running from work to family to bed to work again, unless you’re retired, in which case you’re even busier – you know how easy it is for one day to blend into the next and a week turns into a year turns into five and before you know it you have grandchildren and great grandchildren and you’re wondering what it was all about. And maybe like me you remember back to the days when you had dreams and passions and ideals; and while you know you’re wiser now, you can’t remember when the last time was that you had a passionate certainty about the purpose of your life.

I have to confess that before I went on sabbatical I was more confused about this than I knew. I was so close to my work here for five and half years that on any given day I could show you my calendar full of meetings and conferences and appointments, but I couldn’t say with any conviction that any of it expressed the divine purpose of my life.

I had let all the busy-ness of my life crowd out the divine purpose of my life. So getting away from the office and the streets and the cars and the emails has helped me remember why I am a priest and why it is that in the course of God’s strange and mysterious plan he created Matthew Lawrence.

And by now some of you are probably wondering, “Oh God, what’s he going to ask us to do now?” I think maybe a lot of rectors come back from their sabbaticals full of new ideas that they can’t wait to inflict on their unsuspecting congregations. But don’t worry, my particular epiphany doesn’t necessarily involve lots of new programs and new enthusiasms. It’s more about who I am as a child of God, and what God would have me do with the time I have left on this planet.

I spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the difference between what I say is important to me, and how I spend my time. For example, it’s not unusual to hear me complain that I don’t have enough time to visit members of the congregation, when I seem to have all the time it takes to sit at my desk answering hundreds of emails and attending dozens of meetings. Having gotten away from the office for four and a half months has proven to me that the church can actually do quite well without me running around chasing my tail; so I’m going to find a way to spend less time in the office and more time in face-to-face visits with you.

In a similar vein, I frequently complain that I don’t have time for getting exercise – but I seem to have time for television. I have plenty of time to complain about politicians, but not enough time to write a letter to my congresswoman. I have lots of time to spend worrying about climate change – but I’ve never bothered to invest my money in carbon offset projects. I have time to complain about the criminality of our criminal justice system and the insanity of our mental health system - and yet I've done precious little to translate those concerns into meaningful action.

What's going on with all of that?

How is it that we can spend so little amount of time and money on the things we say are most important to us?

This is exactly what James is asking us in our reading this morning. How is it, he asks, that we can claim to love our neighbors as ourselves, and yet do so little for our neighbors who are poor? “What good is it,” he says, “if you say you have faith but you do not have works?”

This, of course, is the great issue of the religious life – the distance that we can see in our lives between the values and commitments that we claim to have, and the ways in which we do our day-to-day business. This is the classic tension between faith and works. How is it that we can claim to love the poor, but we never seem to have time to help out at The Living Room or the Mission’s feeding program? What is it within us that prevents us from living our lives according to the values we claim to hold?

Of course, both Paul and James struggled mightily with this problem between faith and works; Paul being as honest about this as anyone ever has when he said, in Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.... Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7: 14-25)

This is the eternal problem. And of course it isn’t solved overnight by some self-righteous preacher fresh from sabbatical sermonizing about how we need to be doing more. If I had heard this sermon before I went off on sabbatical, my first instinct would have been to say, “Hey, no thank you, you’re about to ask me to do more and I’ve got too much on my plate already!” But the thing is, it would have been untrue! Because I hadn't been doing enough. I'd been living a life in which the priorities and values that I proclaimed as sacred to me were taking second place to that which was convenient and comfortable and immediately demanding of my time and attention.

So on that level – and just speaking for myself – things are going to change. I claim to be worried about global climate change, but never gave a thought to how much CO2 my 30,000 miles of travel was releasing into the atmosphere. It turns out to have been 23 metric tons. And it turns out that for $240, I could invest in a carbon offset project that recaptured that amount of CO2. So yesterday I went ahead and purchased that carbon offset.

I claim to care about the mentally ill in the prison system, so this Thursday I’m driving down to Monterey again to visit our friend who is in prison there for the crime of being mentally ill. Normally we have a staff meeting on Thursdays but something tells me they will get along fine without me.

I claim to have a keen interest in the vitality and growth of this Episcopal Church; the health of this institution is a sacred cause for me – and so, despite the fact that the Governor has decreased our household income by over 10%, we will once again be increasing our pledge this year. Because this congregation is more important to us than just about anything.

I could go on – but we’ve run out of time. Let me close by simply asking you to pray with me.

Holy and gracious God, we call upon your Holy Spirit to bring your blessing upon us as we seek to do those things that you have called us to do. Give us the courage to follow the path you have laid out for us; give us clarity of mind and heart to discern that path; and in all things empower us to bring your love into this world. All this we pray through your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aoraki - Mt. Cook Sunrise

Sunrise on Aoraki - Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, as seen from our hotel room. The Hermitage Hotel there is the nicest hotel we stayed at during our month in New Zealand; the restaurant there is first rate; lots of great hiking; and the views are unbelievable.

Queenstown, New Zealand

This was the view from our apartment window in Queenstown, as the sun set in the west and set the sky a gorgeous pink. The mountains are appropriately called "The Remarkables."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Study and Reflection in the Sunrise Forest

This is the Geodesic Dome in the woods that my family built in the early 1970's. A very special place on a river north of Minneapolis.

This bench was installed in memory of my mother, who liked to sit at this spot and watch the river go by.

At Seminary

A wonderful Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The Minnesota Twins were playing a very rare game against the Cubs. They lost this one in the 9th, but won the other two.
The classroom at Seabury-Western. Fabulous presentation by Eric Law.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I encountered many ancient petroglyphs on my trip through Utah and Nevada. They spoke to me of the ancient calling to communicate across generations and cultures. Here are a couple.


I spent 8 glorious days at Lake Tahoe, thanks to the generosity of Camp Noel Porter and St. Nicholas' Church. I did some good writing and wonderful hiking. Rose joined me for the weekend. Here are some pix from there.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sunset from my campsite.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sabbatical Journal: Entry #1

The drive from Salt Lake City to the little resort town of Moab takes you through big-sky vistas of red buttes spreading out for mile upon mile and soaring into surprising shapes, some narrow and blunt, some broad and sloped, all of them standing like stubborn soldiers in a war against time. Like everything else that takes the form of being, of course, they are losing that war, but so slowly as to win our admiration.

Snow-capped mountains line the distant horizon; they are impassive and imperial and glamorous, like celebrities or gods shining against the bright blue sky. I flatter myself by imagining them watching me as I drive across this enormous landscape, but of course they have bigger things on their minds. They converse with the sun, and whisper to the moon; they gossip about the Himalayas. I am nothing to them, just one of a thousand unremarkable ants making its way across their back yards.

If a mountain ever did deign to observe my progress, what would it see? A sadly unremarkable specimen: a middle-aged human sporting a week-old beard that has been overrun by grey hair. The man is hunched over the wheel of a mini-van filled with camping supplies; he pulls into a gas station and gets out to stretch. The mountain would observe a little paunch that the man takes pains to conceal by tucking his shirt in just so; he would observe a face wincing in pain as the man stretches his lower back.

If the mountain got to know him better, it would learn that he is a priest of a pitiably anthrocentric religion (“Everyone knows God is a mountain,” it would sniff).

This particular priest is, this very day, launching his first real sabbatical in 20 years of ordained ministry. I will be away from my parish for four and a half months, splitting my time between formal studies, conferences, and over 9 weeks of pure down time, beginning with this solo 2 1/2 week camping trip to Southeastern Utah.

I wanted to begin my sabbatical with silence, and prayer, and talking to the mountains, and listening to the earth.

While I’m in the desert I will be asking a lot of questions. I've made an inventory of them - and am happy to note that none of them have to do with my marriage. This is the only thing in my life that I have never questioned. My wife of 26 years is as beautiful as she is quick-witted and open-hearted. She is a psychologist who works with extremely difficult people; somehow she bears this exhausting work with grace and good humor. She is a wonder to me.

I will be away from her for most of this sabbatical time. I miss her already. She will join me for a month in New Zealand at the end of the sabbatical – a place we have both always wanted to visit. We can hardly believe our good fortune.

The air is warm on this mid-April day. Ponderosa pines and red bluffs make this look for all the world like a Western movie set. I turn on the air-conditioning in my minivan and fret about increasing my carbon footprint. I also feel guilty about the fact that as I drive I am simultaneously listening to my iPod and charging my Kindle and checking my Blackberry for a signal. I am embarrassed by all this but not enough to have left them behind. I plan on a gradual withdrawal.

This is what sabbatical is for, I think – to loose the bonds of our ordinary habits. I am eager to see what rises to the surface when the waters are more still. I dreamed last night of ominous panthers and friendly hounds. The night before I dreamed I was a god who could not decide what form to take. I briefly became a plump and complacent man, then said, no, not that. I then became glorious and strong, an Apollo, and I wondered, “How long can this last?”

Before I set off for my camp in the desert, I stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast at Mt. Peale, Utah and inadvertently left my laundry behind. After 4 days in the desert I returned to pick it up. The hostess said, “You look like you’ve been reborn!” I said, “Not quite yet, but I’m making progress.”

I’ve been praying for Spirit to keep showing up. Please join me in that prayer.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sabbatical Journal: Canyonlands

A few pictures: My campsite just outside Canyonlands National Park; my thanks to Louisville Institute, which funded this sabbatical; the bus station in Reno that I spent a night in when I was 17 years old, hitch-hiking across the country.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Breaking into Blossom

Sermon Easter 2009

Good morning and Happy Easter!

We got two pieces of good news yesterday. The first one has to do with that rule – you know the one – the rule that says that everything that tastes good is bad for you. Apparently that rule has been overturned! This is true: Scientists have discovered that eating chocolate improves your math scores. So that’s great news – but the bad news is that after you eat your Easter bunny, I guess today would be a great day to finish your taxes.

The second bit of good news is that scientists have also discovered the exact chemical reasons why bacon tastes so good. It turns out it’s some kind of complicated interaction of amino acids and enzymes or something. They said on the radio that this now replaces what used to be the accepted theory, which was that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
(Heard on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" Sat April 11 2009

I liked the old theory better...

I know a lot of you were here two days ago, on Good Friday – seems like a long time ago now... With the 3 services and all that praying, I did a lot of kneeling on Good Friday. Then on Saturday morning I got out of bed and began to climb down the stairs and my knees almost buckled under me.

Now I get to add my knees to the list of creaky body parts that are going south.

My body's descent into old age and death feels closer and more certain with every passing Good Friday. So what do I do? I go to the gym, of course; I get on the Stairmaster to try to reverse this descent and the Stairmaster becomes a cruel symbol of the aging process – climbing all those stairs, and getting nowhere.

I don’t mean to get maudlin here but the other day I stumbled across some old pictures of my wife and me, from 25 years ago. We were newly married. It had been years since I had seen these photos and they hit me with such force - my God, look at how young we were! Somehow it seemed like a fresh revelation that we ever looked that good. Of course my wife hasn't aged a day but the contrast to my present condition was rather sobering, to say the least. Sobering like a cold shower after a wedding reception. Sobering like the first time they stopped putting all the birthday candles on your birthday cake because of the fire hazard.

So in light of all this evidence of our certain mortality, how could anyone possibly believe these ancient stories about resurrection?

When I was younger, back in the good old days when I knew everything, I used to think that Christianity was nothing more than a random collection of myths and fairy tales. It was so obvious: how could any intelligent person possibly believe such fantasies?

But then my understanding of belief shifted; I discovered a more subtle intelligence lying beneath the surface of my rational mind; an intelligence of poetry and sacred story and music and imagination.

It is not very interesting to me what your theory of Christ's resurrection is - what actually happened on that first Easter morning 2,000 years ago is hidden forever in the shroud of time and archaeologists are never going to uncover a long-lost surveillance video from the tomb to settle the question. All we will ever know is that whatever happened, it was an event of enough force that it inspired a self-centered and none too bright collection of disciples to recklessly spend their lives proclaiming the significance of this event to the four corners of the known world. That should give the most ardent of skeptics pause. But in the end we would all be missing the point if we spent too much time trying to figure it out.

Far more rewarding, if you dare, is to travel to that region of your soul where your thinking ends and your all your striving for sense and order is at rest. It is as if you are standing on a dock overlooking a calm and placid lake; it is a warm summer day. It feels like the lake is calling to you, inviting you, and you kick off your shoes and dive off the dock into the water of your deepest longings, your warmest currents; your dark and murky depths. This is the area where the sacred stories of religion live and make sense; they are like treasures sunk in the sea; you can only find them by diving in.

People who, like me when I was younger, criticize religion from the outside are like people who think they know all about the ocean but have stuck their toe in it – have never felt the thrill of the waves rushing over their feet; have never felt the dangerous undertow pulling them further out.

For some strange reason they think that swimming in these waters is beside the point – but that’s the only point.

The great Sufi poet Rumi said,

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

50 years ago, a man and his traveling companion were driving through the Midwest and just outside of Rochester, Minnesota they pulled off the highway. It was coming on to twilight and they got out of the car to stretch their legs; looking up the man saw two Indian ponies in a pasture, trotting toward them.

Later, he would write a poem about these ponies:
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me...
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other."

One of the ponies, black and white, approaches him and nuzzles his hand:

"Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom."
-James Wright, from "A Blessing"
from "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart", p.435

When’s the last time you felt like you were about to “break into blossom”?

They don’t come often, but some of us, if we’ve learned to swim in the deep waters, have these moments; these moments when the world seems to stop and everything comes to balance on this one still point of knowing: and we know what it means to be resurrected.

There is something deep inside us that knows all about resurrection – if it didn’t, the idea of resurrection would bounce off our brains like so many other impossible ideas.

No, deep down we know.

And deep down, we know we are not alone.
The Nobel prize winning poet, Juan Ramon Jimenez, wrote this:
I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.
translated by Robert Blye
in "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart", p. 367

Deep down, we know what it means to be resurrected; we know it in our bones, in our flesh and blood. We can feel it, in our bodies. It is a secret knowing, discovered in the region of dreams and prayers.

This knowing begins to surface in the places we might least expect it – in our futility, our weakness, our woundedness, our dying. With every ache and pain, there is a cry for relief that comes from a place where we are healed; with every wrinkle that appears in the mirror there is a memory of timeless youth; with every bit of news of injustice and murder there is a protest that comes from the knowledge that the world should not be this way; that it doesn’t need to be this way.

We know this because in the deepest part of where we live, we have seen God’s Kingdom; not only have we seen that Kingdom, we have come from there; we are citizens of that Eternal City; and we know that this is where we will return one day.

In the midst of our brief and painful lives we feel the resurrection rising within us.

It starts in our woundedness: our aging, our disappointment, our despair; it begins in pain and protest against the dying of the light.

But it doesn’t need to end there. If we dare to lift our hearts; if we dare to lift our prayers of yearning to the Source of light and the Spring of love, a connection is made; the uncreated energy of the Holy One is awakened in our bodies comes alive; and we rise; we rise and our souls are lifted up; we rise and our wounds are left behind; we rise and we awaken to what we have known all along:
that God is alive;
God has defeated death.
We understand now, this ancient story that is written on our hearts;
We are in the garden at the empty tomb, and the tomb is ours;
we are standing, now, in the presence this curious angel, who is pointing the way to the resurrection;
we are present, now, to this risen Christ, who is wounded and walking among us;
And now we know because he is alive;
Alive within us!
And we stand –
stand up! stand up!
And we raise our hands
and we raise our voices; and we shout it to the morning;
and we shout it to our souls:
Christ is alive!
Christ is alive!
And so are we!

Praise be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia, the Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Win Twins!

As the Hopeful Priest goes into sabbatical mode, he would like to leave his readers with these important words of comfort and good cheer:

*The Win! Twins! Fight Song*

We’re gonna win Twins, we’re gonna score!
We’re gonna win Twins, watch that baseball soar!
Knock out a homerun, shout a hip-hooray!
Cheer for the Minnesota Twins today!

We’re gonna win Twins, give it our all!
We’ve got the guys who’ll knock the cover off the ball!
Let’s hear it now for the team that came to play!
Cheer for the Minnesota Twins today!

Lyrics by Dick Wilson
(music by Ray Charles, but not THAT Ray Charles.)