Monday, December 13, 2010

Irony, Ambivalence and Christmas

Sermon preached December 12, 2010
Advent 3 Year A

Good Morning.

So here we are, once again, with Christmas hurtling toward us like a snowball headed for our face; we are caught up in the excitement of the season even as we anticipate the pain it is sure to also bring us…

Whether that pain is felt in the emptiness of our pocketbooks or the emptiness we feel in the massive, glittering rush toward consumerism, we feel it. Even as we see the joy on the faces of the children; even as we remember our own excitement when as children we knew that Santa Claus was on his way – even in the midst of all of that, Christmas can also feel like a time of loss, as we remember loved ones and better times.

Which means it is time, once again, for my annual sermon on ambivalence and irony, and the fact that it’s perfectly okay to hold onto two completely inconsistent and incompatible truths simultaneously; how it is perfectly acceptable to mutter Bah Humbug even as we shout Merry Christmas…

They say that it’s a mark of intelligence and emotional maturity if you can hold two contradictory positions at the same time.

Albert Einstein, for example, made his great breakthrough in physics when he realized that an object can, in fact, be both at rest and in motion. Apparently this insight led him to the theory of relativity.

And so it is about Christmas: Within the giant gift bag of Christmas there are so many contradictory elements and feelings that it’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t explode.

In one simple holiday we find boatloads of generosity and also of greed; hackneyed sentimentalism and thrilling new insights; indecent waste and profound simplicity.
This is a time, in other words, for a healthy appreciation of ambivalence and irony.

Consider, for example, this wonderful irony: that Christians have historically been the biggest opponents of Christmas.

It started, of course, long before the birth of Jesus, with our suspicion of paganism. 600 years before Jesus was born, pagans would cut down small trees this time of year, bring them into their homes, and decorate them with silver and gold.

It looked like a nice thing to do and pretty soon the Jews at the time of King Josiah started to do it, too; that is, until the prophet Jeremiah found out about this and condemned the practice as a dangerous flirtation with paganism. (Jer. 10: 2-4). If Jeremiah had had his way, all this decoration of trees would have ended way before Jesus came along.

800 years later, in Roman culture, the same issue comes up. The festival of the winter solstice lasted a full week, during which time the birth of the god-man savior was celebrated, and many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas – the giving of gifts, lots of decorations and parties and general revelry – were practiced. Depending on the customs of your local household or village, you had your choice of divine-human savior gods, including Appolo, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Osiris, Theseus, and half a dozen others. At some point a little consistency was needed, so in the year 270 or so AD the Emperor Aurelian blended all of these Pagan solstice celebrations of the god-man into a single festival called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" and established the date for these celebrations as December 25.

So of course, many of the early Christians simply declared December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ’s birth and adopted all of these parties as birthday parties for Jesus, and everyone was happy.

Except Tertullian, the great church father, who warned his flock in the strongest of terms not to imitate the pagan traditions. Apparently his voice was not heard over the singing of Christmas carols.

14 centuries after Tertullian, the debate still raged, in the form of Oliver Cromwell campaigning against the “the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols and decorated trees – just as the Puritan founders of our country fulminated against the “pagan mockery” of Christmas traditions.

And so we should not be surprised when we hear about Christians today making the same ancient arguments against Christmas – and we suspect they will get about as far with their arguments as Tertullian did.

It does make you wonder, though, whether Bill O’Reilly and all the other righteous defenders of Christmas have studied this issue as carefully as they might. At any rate, they certainly don’t seem to appreciate irony very much, which is proof, perhaps, of Emerson’s saying, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

We know, of course, that Christmas did not really take over as the massive marketing bonanza it is today until just over a century ago. In the 19th Century “schools and businesses remained open, [and] Congress met in session...” during Christmas. “Major American denominations – Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists and Congregationalists – either ignored the holiday or actively discouraged it...”

As for the Episcopalians… well, let’s just say that we have never been very good Puritans, just as we have always cherished a healthy sense of irony. The Puritans came to this land to get away from people like us, and were dismayed when we followed them to the New World, what with our fondness for spiked eggnog and suspiciously pagan party favors.

All of which leads us to the scripture this morning – which I’m sure you were wondering about – which is simply to point out the wild disparity between Christmas as it is practiced, and Christmas as it is intended by the historical heart of our faith. Because, while the rest of the Western world gorges itself in an orgy of consumerism, we are asked by our Bible to stop for a moment and reflect on the true meaning of all of this, which has to do with the irrepressible hope for justice for the poor. It has to do with the unquenchable longing for a godly revolution; the overturning of this corrupt present order; the final establishment of God’s reign over a world that has sold its soul for a few shiny trinkets.

While the rest of the world rushes headlong into the never-ending quest for the year’s hottest new iPhone, we are asked by Isaiah to turn our thoughts to those who have nothing.

Isaiah’s people have been defeated by the iron boots of Babylon; they have been removed from their homes and forced to live in a foreign land; for fifty years they have been living in exile; the very memory of what they have lost is beginning to fade; Isaiah, the great prophet of God, has been dead for many years; people are wondering how they could ever have thought of themselves as God’s chosen people; their once proud and great religion is a fading memory.

That’s when one of Isaiah’s old disciples, whom we call 2nd Isaiah, catches a whiff of hope, and stands up in the midst of the people and dares to proclaim these words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

Our God is a God of hope... for those who have nothing left but hope.

And so it is that, 500 years later, in the darkness of a brutal occupation, in a time when any reasonable person would give up on hope, Jesus suggests that we adjust our perspective; and pay attention to what is happening among the poor:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

When will we know that Christmas has arrived? Not when the calendar hits the arbitrary date of Dec. 25; but when a family in Haiti is able to move out of a tent into a house. When will Christmas arrive? When girls in Afghanistan are allowed to go to school without fear of being shot by the Taliban. When will Christmas arrive? When perhaps the flood waters stop rising because we have found a solution to global warming.

In the midst of our dread and anxiety, we proclaim a Christmas hope. It has come to us to bear this hope into the world; that is our job. We proclaim our hope, not just for ourselves, but especially for the poor and the dispossessed. This is not a hope in our own strength, but in the grace and mercy of God, who even now is coming into the world to save us.

This is Christmas – to stand, despite our weak hands and feeble knees; to sing out, despite our fear; to proclaim our hope, despite our ambivalence; to stake our lives on God, despite our healthy sense of irony. And so we stand with 2nd Isaiah as we proclaim his words:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Afterlife? Really?

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
November 7, 2010
Proper 27: Job 19: 23-27a; Luke 20: 27-38

The Afterlife? Really?

As most of you know, I’ve been away to attend the funeral of my brother, Chris. First, I flew to Taiwan to represent my family at his funeral there. It was held on a dreary, rainy Saturday last week, in a little chapel at the top of a mountain overlooking Taipei. There was a jazz band, and an organ, and the pastor spoke his words of comfort, and some others told their stories of affection, and we all sang our songs of love.

Then it was off to Minneapolis, where my family gathered with dear old friends in the Episcopal cathedral there; and again there was a jazz band, and an organ, and the pastor spoke his words of comfort, and some others told their stories of affection, and we all sang our songs of love.

But one thing that was different between the two services was that in Minnesota the priest began the service with the traditional words from our burial liturgy, which happen also to be the words assigned to us this morning from the book of Job:

I know that my Redeemer liveth
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
-Job 19: 25-27a

These words have been ringing in my heart ever since.

One of the many favors that my family did for me on this trip was that they gave me permission to not be a priest. I wanted to speak about my brother, but just as a brother, not as a priest. I wanted someone else to be on the job; I wanted someone else to do the work of making sense of all this; because I wasn’t sure that I could.

The Dean of the Cathedral in Minneapolis started his remarks by saying, “How do you say Alleluia and Goodbye at the same time?” I thought that was a wonderfully poignant line, and I made a mental note to steal it.

How do we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the life of our loved ones, and at the same time express our grief and heartbreak in an authentic way?

A great question. And both of the pastors, in their own way, answered that question with their words of comfort. He will be waiting for us, they said, on the other side. He is with us, even now, in our hearts, just as he is fully alive in heaven.
As I sat in my pew, I felt my heart leaping to embrace these words of comfort, even as I felt my mind doubting them.

“Really,” I wondered? Is my brother really out there, waiting for me on the other side? Even as I felt comforted by those words, I felt suspicious of them. How do we know we aren’t telling ourselves these words of comfort just because we need that comfort so much?

And for a mad, schizophrenic moment I found myself both believing, and disbelieving, at the same time. What my heart was embracing as truth, my rational mind was holding me back, doubting, skeptical, removed.

Is there an afterlife, or not? After all, the Bible is notoriously fuzzy on this point. With the exception of Job’s poetic declaration, and some pretty ambiguous references in the Psalms and maybe Isaiah, the case for an afterlife in the Old Testament is not terribly compelling. The realm of the dead, when it’s mentioned at all, is described as a shadowy, subterranean place. The overwhelming emphasis in the Hebrew Bible is on this life, not the next one; God’s judgment, and God’s kingdom, are most definitely described as happening on this earth, in this existence, not in some heaven up in the clouds. Definite ideas about an afterlife only began to take hold after the Babylonian exile, and then later under the influence of the Persians and the Greeks, when the Jews were exposed to more dualistic ideas about a spiritual reality beyond the physical body.

So, needless to say, I was feeling somewhat conflicted about all this.
And it seems that the Holy Spirit noticed this conflict in me because ever since that service in Taipei, the universe has been conspiring to get me to deal with it: Friday night in our hotel room, Clint Eastwood appears on TV to talk about his new movie, The Hereafter, (a wonderful film, by the way) which is all about the afterlife. In the interview, Eastwood says that, even though he made the movie, he isn’t sure himself what he believes about it. On the flight home from Minnesota, a TV show features a doctor and a patient arguing about the existence of heaven. And then I come home to this Sunday, in which we not only have this direct quote from my brother’s funeral, but also a gospel reading in which Jesus debates the existence of the afterlife with the Saducees.

Even Garrison Keillor gets in on the act, yesterday, by telling the story of the men’s club up there in Lake Wobegon called the Sons of Bernie, or SOBs for short. The SOBs get together every Tuesday night in somebody’s basement, where they sit around and debate the great philosophical questions of the day like Is there an afterlife, and then after 15 minutes somebody rings a bell and they all stop talking, go outside in the snow, and sing songs while jumping up and down.

Which seems like probably the best advice. At times like these, the ancients advise, intellectual arguments only get you so far; and then the best thing to do is to get outside, jump up and down, and sing some old songs.

It pains me to admit this, but it’s true.

We didn’t do a lot of jumping up and down at my brother’s funeral, but Episcopalians have our own version of that: we stand and sit and kneel…

So I should probably just quit right now then; except you don’t pay me to sing and I still have a couple minutes on the clock, so I should probably say a little something about Jesus.

Hmmm: Maybe Jesus can even answer my question.

This story in Luke’s gospel comes toward the end of his life – when Jesus is in Jerusalem; which makes sense because that’s where the Sadducees used to hang out. The Sadducees were a big part of the Temple cult system; they got their name from Zadok, who was a Temple priest in the 10th Century BC; Zadok was one of King David’s most loyal priests; his descendants – the Saddouk - were appointed to officiate at the Temple after the return from exile. The Sadducees were a very conservative line of priests; they only used the first 5 books of the Bible, and since they could find no evidence for an afterlife in the Torah, they refused to believe in the resurrection.

And this is what made them sad, you see…

But what’s interesting about this gospel story is this. As I mentioned, we’re getting toward the end here: Jesus is in the Temple and talking about his death and resurrection quite openly; and the Sadducees don’t much like this guy coming into their house and teaching some doctrine that they think goes against the first five books of the Bible. So when they come to Jesus and start to argue with him, Jesus uses a story from the book of Exodus:

"And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

In other words, God didn’t say, “I WAS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” God says, “I AM” their God – in other words, they are still alive; that relationship still continues; I am the God of the living, not the dead; and to God, “all of them are alive.”

The first time I read this story, I have to say I didn’t find it very convincing. I thought, well Jesus is just using a technical point of grammar to make his argument. It reminded me of Bill Clinton saying, “It depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.” I mean, here we are debating one of the great questions of mankind – what happens after we die – and the entire weight of this question, this mountain of a question, this question that every human being has been asking since the very beginning of consciousness – is answered by this tiny point of grammar?


But then I thought, of course. This is exactly the kind of argument the Sadducees would have appreciated. Jesus is in their house so he is speaking their language, and beating them at their own game. Jesus is showing his brilliance, his complete mastery, in terms that only they could appreciate.

Which is what gives this story its ring of truth.

And now Jesus is speaking my language, because the more you study this story, the more it looks like Jesus’ own words, singing off the page; and as I dig into it more deeply it feels like Jesus is speaking directly to me.

And then it occurs to me, maybe Jesus actually knows what he’s talking about.
Maybe I could give Jesus a little bit of credit for knowing a thing or two about the afterlife. Of those who have died, he says,

"Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection."

One thing we know about Jesus, he wasn’t much interested in saying things just to make people feel comfortable. To Jesus, these are not just words of comfort spoken to grieving mortals desperate to see their loved ones again. No, these are words of challenge, to people in power who are out to get him. It would have been far easier for Jesus to have spoken agreeable words, to have gone along with the program – in fact, it could well have saved his life. But Jesus had a truth that was burning inside him; Jesus was carrying a truth that needed to be spoken, a song that needed to be sung, even if it killed him.

And so he spoke his truth – because he knew it to be true. And that knowledge eliminated his fear of death, and gave him the courage to sing his song of faith.

So I guess if Jesus knew it to be true, that’s good enough for me. And that’s how these other words, from the book of Job, come alive as well:

I know that my Redeemer liveth
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

So now, like the Sons of Bernie, let’s ring the bell, and stop talking, and jump up to sing this ancient song of our faith, the mysterious words of the Nicene Creed….

Monday, October 25, 2010

Skiing the black diamond moguls

Sermon: October 24, 2010
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Incarnation Episcopal Church, Santa Rosa
Text: 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18: 9-14 (Year C Proper 25)

It’s good to see you. I was out of town last week, at a conference in Indiana; and so I missed being with you as I began to come to terms with my brother’s death, which happened last Monday the 11th.

My brother, Chris, was the number 3 child in our family of 5 kids; I was number 4; we were two years apart. He was a healthy, confident boy and a graceful athlete; he had bright blond hair and a big smile and an irrepressible, goofy sense of humor. I adored him as only a little brother can; I followed him everywhere. I watched everything he did and tried my hardest to be just like him.

Chris was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer just over a year ago. From the moment of diagnosis it was clear that it was just a matter of months, not years; so the fact that he had a full year of life was a blessing; it was a year of grace; a year for him to prepare for death. It was a year that few of us ever get: to live with the sure and certain knowledge that death is coming sooner rather than later; coming like a freight train that will not be stopped, so there is nothing to do about it except get ready.

Most of us are never so sure that our end is coming; even some of those among us who are fighting cancer have good reasons to believe they could go into remission and live for many more years. Even the guys sitting on death row have the mercies of the governor to hope for, up to the last minute.

Not so much my brother. It’s a rare thing; and it was a great mercy, in its own way; because all the layers of denial were stripped away; he was undistracted by false hopes; he could focus on living each day as fully as he could, preparing for the end and never letting a moment go by without words of love being spoken.

I mentioned that Chris was a graceful athlete; this was most true on the ski slopes. He would slip down a black diamond chute of moguls with equal parts courage and poise and laughter. And he faced his death with the same elegance that he faced the mountain; he made it look easy, moving straight down the fall line; so graceful you didn’t realize how fast he was going - until he zoomed right past, always first to the finish line.

Like my brother, Paul also knew when his time was up. In this, his second letter to Timothy, Paul is writing from prison, and he knows it won’t be long now. “I am being poured out as a libation,” he says, “and the time of my departure has come.”
This is like Dr. King’s “mountain top” speech; these are Paul’s last words of hope. He is hopeful, but he isn’t suffering under the weight of false hope. He knows the end has come, and he has shifted his attention from this world to the next.
He reflects on his legacy, and he testifies on his own behalf: “I have fought the good fight,” he says. “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
And like my brother, Paul is fearless in the face of death. He knows that when he is called to account, he will be greeted with the crown of righteousness – and, he takes pains to point out – not only will that be his reward, it will be the reward for “all who have longed for his appearing.”

Paul knows that he has nothing to be ashamed of; because he has given everything, and has no regrets.

Unlike Paul, and my brother Chris, I can’t say I have the same fearlessness. Whereas Chris would shush toward the cliff face with his skis flashing, I would tend to stay a little while at the top, adjusting my goggles, gathering my nerve, studying the moguls, trying to figure out my path down the hill. I tended to be a little more conscious of the potential for disaster. Chris would fly down the slope as if he were weightless, while I would remain at the top, rehearsing in my mind the many ways in which this could end badly.

When it comes to my own death, my hope is that Paul was right: that while God might take special delight in the gymnastics of an expert skier, he’s got a trophy for everyone who makes it down the mountain.

That is my hope; but I can’t say that I fully believe it. And one reason why that’s difficult for me, I think, is because I’m a priest. In the middle of the night, I imagine a special circle in hell for the priests who didn’t live up to the expectations of their calling.

Garret Keizer, an Episcopal priest in Vermont, wrote about this in his beautiful memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. He writes,

The thought that I will one day be called to account for what I have done in this place often seizes me like the realization that I’ve failed to turn off an iron or stove, and that it was hours and miles ago. I can smell the smoke.”

I mean, I know that my God is a God of complete love and forgiveness. I know that in my bones. But I also can’t shake the feeling that I haven’t done enough; that I’m not worthy of this privilege, not strong enough to carry this burden, not good enough to wear this collar.

I believe in a god of forgiveness but I also believe in a God of accountability. And I believe that we priests will have much to account for.

That’s why, when I read this Gospel story for today, I identify much more with the tax collector than the Pharisee. And as I say that, I suppose some people would consider that a boast rather than a confession. But for me, it’s just the way it is. I’m not content with the way things are for me. I am too conscious of the saints who have gone before me; too sensible of my limitations; to aware of God’s expectations.

But in a weird kind of way, I think that’s okay; in fact I think that’s as it should be. I can’t say why but I think it’s kind of comforting to believe in a God who has high standards; I think it’s okay not to rest on our laurels.

Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota but I think a little humility is a good thing. I mean, between the chest-thumping athletes, the preening politicians, and the unrepentant Wall Street executives, I’m thinking the world might be a better place to live in if humility were as highly valued as expertise.

I've been wondering what disaster will have to befall our nation in order for us to remember that old and awful lesson of history: that "pride goeth before the fall." We’ve become so certain of God’s forgiveness that we consider pride a virtue and heaven our birthright; as if we were entitled to heaven; as if it were our just reward for a lifetime of self-serving pleasure.

Everyone gets a trophy? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.

As a culture we are offended by the bare mention of things like sin or judgment. “Shame” is a dirty word these days - but I’m not so sure we couldn’t use a bit more of it.

Our God is a God of radical forgiveness, I know… But God is also a God of accountability.

A number of years ago, when a guy broke into my house in the middle of the night, and was caught by the police, I had the rare chance to forgive him. Which I did. But I didn’t for a moment think he shouldn’t also be prosecuted and go to jail.
Without some measure of accountability, everything falls apart. I heard this morning that in Mexico, the prosecution and conviction rate for murder is 2%. Who can live in a place like that? In the United States, we eased up on regulating the financial industry, and look what happened.

Human beings are not to be fully trusted.

And yet, this is what we do here at Incarnation. We live in trust: with one another, and with God – even when it’s not in our immediate interests.

The other day I heard about a church that has, on its bulletin board, the names of every member of the congregation, listed according to the percentage of their income that they give to the church. The church has been doing this for years and according to the pastor, it’s a great way of inspiring his members to give more.
Of course, what it says to me is that they’re not so sure they can trust their members to give adequately to the church, so they have to resort to peer pressure.

At Incarnation, we would never do that – but don’t think I’m not tempted! We would never use shame as a motivation to give. To do so is to create a culture that makes Pharisees of us all.

That said, I would bet my paycheck that if we did create such a list, most of you would be surprised by who rose to the top.

Some of our biggest pledgers are not the least bit wealthy – in fact, most of our biggest pledgers live extremely modestly. Of course, they would be horrified if their giving ever became public knowledge. But as one who has seen this list of pledgers, I can tell you that this is a document that would put most of us to shame.

But I also have to tell you that it is a beautiful thing – to witness these acts of generosity among people who give, not out of shame, or obligation, or fear, but out of the sheer joy of giving. It is my great privilege to get to know people who have found a new way of being in the world – a way of being that is not defined by anxiety over how much we don’t have, or how much we want, but rather a way of being that is defined by generosity and deep gratitude. As I get to know these people – these people who give out of their substance, not out of anxiety but with joy and thanksgiving – I become witness to something very rare and beautiful: I see people who are free.

Free from the anxiety that comes from a belief in scarcity rather than abundance; free from anxious calculations over what they have left over at the end of the month after they’ve paid for everything else they think they want or need.

These are people who have made one thing clear to themselves and to me: that God comes first, not last, not at the end of the month. God is not picking up the scraps from under the table, feeding on whatever is left over. God is at the table; God comes first. Because God is the source of all that is. These folks don’t just say that’s true; they live that truth; and as a result, they live in deep gratitude for everything that comes from God: the smell of the moist earth; the sound of the rain; the feeling of fresh air as we breathe it in.

I strive to be one of those people. I am still more of the tax collector than the Pharisee, I hope; I am still more aware of how much more I could; but Rose and I do give of our substance – that is, we give proportionally. We still don’t give as much as we would like; but we give out of our abundance, not our scarcity; inspired by the saints in this congregation who put us to shame; and we give with joyful hearts, filled with gratitude for all of you, and for the amazing ministries that you make possible.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Leaving Church

…Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:16b-17

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Luke 12:32

Five months ago, back in the rainy days of March, a radio and television personality named Glenn Beck received a fair amount of attention when he gave his listeners the following advice:

‘I beg you: look for the words, “Social Justice” or “Economic Justice” on your church’s website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell him…’

Mr. Beck even went so far as to link the term “social justice” with the Nazi Party and to the Communist Party. He actually held up a swastika in one hand, and a hammer and sickle in the other, as he told his audience that what both of these movements had in common was this sinister goal of social justice. So if you hear that kind of talk in your church, run away!

Of course, Mr. Beck’s amazing statements were met with hoots of derision from all corners of Christendom – from Catholic bishops to the heads of just about every mainline Protestant denomination to some leaders of his own Mormon Church, who made it clear that the concept of social justice is one of the pillars of the faith and, I dare say, desperately hoped Mr. Beck might follow his own advice.

Well, all that was five months ago, as I said; and I had almost forgotten all about it when the news this week brought word of another person talking about leaving the church. This time it was the famous author of all those vampire novels, Anne Rice – who had a conversion to the Catholic Church ten years ago, and now renounces the church.

While she would continue to be devoted to Jesus Christ, Ms. Rice said, she was renouncing the title “Christian.” But unlike Mr. Beck, it wasn’t because Christianity talks too much about “social justice” – it’s because Christians don’t talk enough about it, nor do they practice it.

She said, "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."

It kind of broke my heart that it apparently never occurred to her that there are actually many hundreds of churches and millions of Christians – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Congregationalists, to name just a few – who also refuse to be all those things and nonetheless somehow manage to happily remain in church.

But the more striking thing about this was how her statement served as a kind of ideological book-end to Mr. Beck’s statement, each one outrageous for different reasons but both of them representing extreme right-wing and left-wing arguments for leaving church.

We even have one of our own - the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor – who wrote a book entitled Leaving Church. In it she describes the impossible ironies and frustrations of life in a typical parish, and finally paints her decision to leave the church as a call to a more authentic life.

You know… In the good old days, people left church because they lost their faith, or finally found the courage to admit they never had much faith in the first place. But now, a guy can spend the morning in bed watching football and convince himself that he is doing it for the loftiest of reasons, even for the sake of loyalty to Christ himself!

So now leaving church has now become politically correct – for both liberals and conservatives.

How very convenient.

It takes courage to go to church these days; we who do are becoming counter-cultural oddities; museum-piece curiosities. We feel the pressure: how many of us think twice before we talk about church with our friends or co-workers? And this is having an effect on our own parish’s attendance figures. It’s not that any of us are leaving the church – some of us are just coming less often. It’s like this virus of church-leaving is spreading. And the less often we come to church, the more disconnected we feel from the community, and the more disconnected we feel, the more we wonder if this is the best use of our time.

I think some of us might feel kind of like the guy at the baseball game who got up to get a hot dog and when he got back he sees that the score has changed and he missed something important. If he’s lucky, he’s got a friend who can explain what happened while he was gone – but it’s nothing like being there yourself.

I’ve heard people say they’re just not sure what our church stands for anymore; what’s the mission, what’s the point? Why are we doing all this?

Which gets us back to this reading from Isaiah:

…cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:16b-17

Back in the olden days – and now I’m talking about that short period of time between, oh, say about 3,000 B.C. to around 1980 – if you asked people what the purpose of the church or the temple was, you would get some variation on the following answer:

1. To worship God. The primary purpose has always been to worship God;

2. To bring spiritual comfort and nurture to the members of the church;

3. To teach and preach the Bible;

4. To engage in charitable acts of mercy, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless;

5. To engage the world in the public sphere of social justice: to abolish slavery and segregation; to engage in prison reform and the treatment of the mentally ill; to be a public voice of conscience in our society – consistent with the prophets and with Jesus – protecting the vulnerable and the poor.

But what’s happened since about 1980 is that somehow, in the blink of an eye, it has become self-evident to many people that the entire public mission of the church – that whole #5 category - the mission that forced the Magna Carta on King John; the mission that invented hospitals; the mission that abolished slavery and gave African Americans the right to vote and stood up against the Ku Klux Klan; the very same mission that made it possible for me to marry the woman I love – this same public mission of the church is simply dismissed now with a wave of the hand as “political” and therefore inappropriate.

Somehow it has become self-evident to people that churches have no business engaging the world in the cause of social justice. It’s almost like the guy who got up in the middle of the game and by the time he got back he had forgotten which team he was cheering for!

But fortunately we have Holy Scripture, like these words from the prophet Isaiah, reminding us of the proper mission of the church once again.

…cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

We have our Lord Jesus, who asks us to do the impossible:

"Do not be afraid, little flock;… sell your possessions, and give alms.”

This is not an easy assignment. If these words from Scripture make us feel uncomfortable, that’s good, that’s what Scripture is supposed to do. If the words of the prophet make us clench our fists and want to shut him up, then we’re getting to the heart of what Scripture is there for.

Scripture should be making us uncomfortable. It should be making us angry. It should get us to think seriously about our lifestyles and our self-indulgent habits.

Because the Bible is not only about comfort. In fact, there is very little comfort in the Bible for those of us who are comfortable in the world. Jesus did not come into the world in order to make us feel good in our prosperity. Just about everything he says about people like us are words of challenge to our lifestyles and our priorities.

So the question is, and always has been, can we endure the discomfort that Jesus and the prophets bring into our lives? Can we grow from that discomfort, without leaving church? Can we, as a congregation, honor the words of Jesus and the prophets and find our public purpose in the world without everyone getting frustrated and doing the easy thing which is to leave the church? Do we have enough love to stay together, even when we disagree with one another?

Sometimes it feels like Christianity has gotten so fragile that it can’t tolerate its own message. It reminds me of the newborn puppy I heard about, who barked for the first time and scared herself half to death. Our sensibilities are so delicate that we can’t even admit that we have anything to repent of. We can only stand to have a God of comfort; the God that is uncomfortable – the God of justice – is just too much to bear.

But Jesus never said it was going to be easy.

And here’s the good news: this discomfort is only temporary; as we work past our discomfort we find that we grow closer together as brothers and sisters in Christ; we find new energy, newfound joy in fresh discoveries of the Gospel. We discover that there is something that unites us that is far deeper and more permanent than any political slogans or social agendas.

The experience of staying in church is the experience of discovering that there are people in our community with whom we couldn’t disagree more, and yet these are the very same people whom we love most deeply.

That’s gospel love.

In Christ there is no East nor West; no slave nor free, no Democrat nor Republican. What unites us is Christ himself, his love pouring out to us as freely as an ever-flowing stream.

I pray that, as we endure this uncomfortable Gospel together, we never forget this one simple fact: that God’s love transcends all boundaries; God’s love draws us closer together; and that any impulse to leave church, whether inspired by Anne Rice or Glenn Beck or Barbara Brown Taylor, is an impulse that draws us away from the heart of this wonderfully uncomfortable love, made real in the person of Jesus Christ.

Somebody say… Amen.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Martha v. Mary

Luke 10: 38-42
Sermon Preached July 18, 2010

This morning we meet, once again, those two sisters Martha and Mary, who have become symbols of two different ways of being in the world – Martha, the active one, busily preparing the meal and cleaning the kitchen while her sister, Mary, is content to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. And when Martha complains that Mary isn’t helping out, Jesus gently chastises Martha:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Which makes this story the most deeply resented story in the entire gospels. I know people who proclaim Jesus as their Lord and Savior with the deepest sincerity: Jesus knew no sin, they say; he lived a life of perfection, every word that fell from his lips, a pearl of wisdom – except for the perfectly horrible thing he said to Martha.

How could he have been so insensitive to Martha? Why was he so willing to encourage that slacker Mary?

Yesterday I was at home in my study working on this sermon – well, actually, I was surfing the web and answering emails and downloading music – when my wife called up and asked me if I wouldn’t come downstairs and help clean the kitchen. I said, “But honey; I’m a Mary, not a Martha!”

Let’s just say this was not a successful strategy on my part… This bruise on my backside didn't get there by accident...

The truth is that we are a nation of Martha’s and always have been. Way back in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “Americans pursue their own welfare” with a “feverish ardor.” He described “this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance” (B00k 2, Ch. 13). [Thanks to Michael Parker for this quote:]

We are, in other words, “worried and distracted by many things.” We work more hours per year than any other major industrial nation. And now that we have Blackberries and iPhones and computers with all that email and the internet, we aren’t even at rest when we’re at rest –talking on Skype, tweeting our friends, updating our Facebook pages, never spending more than a few minutes on any one thing. Worried and distracted by many things? Martha had no idea.

Which is why I’ve put myself on a multi-tasking media diet. I was inspired to do this after hearing an interview between Stephen Colbert and a man named Nicholas Carr, who wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. This guy Nicholas Carr also wrote an article which gets at the issue a bit more directly; the title of the article is “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

And apparently, according to the latest studies on the brain, the answer is “Yes.” Quite simply, “the better we get at multi-tasking, the worse we are at thinking deeply.” This research indicates that the more distracted we allow ourselves to become by all of our multi-tasking, the more shallow our thinking becomes – and that these changes are reflected in actual physical changes in our brains on the cellular level.

He said, “The internet pushes us to a skimming and scanning type form of thinking… what the internet doesn’t provide us any opportunity to do is attentive thinking; the types of thinking like contemplation; like introspection; like reflection; and a lot of our deepest thoughts and certainly our deepest perceptual knowledge only emerge when we’re able to pay attention to one thing…”

In other words, those of us who are immersed in the electronic media of our age – and that includes just about everyone under the age of 50 – are literally becoming incapable of doing what came naturally to Mary: sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus and listening deeply to his Word. Deep, quiet, contemplative reflection is not something we do anymore. Which is perhaps why our political debates have become so sensationalistic and unreflective. Major issues of public policy are being determined by which sound bite or visual image is able to capture our mercurial attention spans for the longest periods of time.

So this is why I’ve put myself on a multi-tasking diet: because if your priest becomes incapable of deep thought, well, we might as well just hang it up. So now, when I’m reading, I’m reading. When I’m answering emails, which will be no more often than twice a day, I’m answering emails. When I’m praying or meditating, my computer and my phone are turned off.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”
; there is need of only one thing.

But we don’t need to be addicted to the internet to be worried and distracted by many things. Indeed, who among us is not worried and distracted by many things? This is not just a condition of the modern age; Jesus is, of course, pointing to a human condition.

And it all comes down, to use the great theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase, to our “ultimate concern.”

We all have an ultimate concern – that is, the one thing that we are living for, the one thing that gives our lives meaning and purpose.

Some of us make our jobs our ultimate concern – we get up in the morning thinking about work and we fall into bed at night thinking about work; and that’s all well and good until the day we get laid off or we retire, and suddenly our lives no longer have purpose or meaning. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. And so we turn our retirements into an imitation of our working lives; some of us work harder in retirement than we did when we worked for money – and by doing so, we hold the black dog of death at bay just a little bit longer. As long as we can remain active and be productive, we’re okay. It feels like staying busy is the only thing keeping us alive – because work is our ultimate concern.

But at some point we are no longer able to work. What then?

Some of us make leisure our ultimate concern – we work in order to live, we say; and by living we mean rest and recreation, hiking, golfing, dancing… And that serves us well as an ultimate concern, until we can no longer play golf or hike or dance.

What then?

Some of us then move on to making the simple act of staying alive our ultimate concern – until the only thing we are living for is drawing the next breath. And as the black dog of death approaches, we wonder, “What was the point?”

We look back over our lives and most of us can testify that we did the best we could; we worked hard and we did our bit to be good people and responsible citizens and we sweated the small stuff and then our spouse died and we found ourselves alone and barely surviving and pretty soon the ambulance comes and we’re gone. Our children sell the house and divide up the furniture and throw away the hundreds of little treasures we accumulated and have a funeral and the few people who still remembered us show up and talk about us with such platitudes that we wonder if they knew us at all, and then that’s it. We’re done. It’s over.

What was it all about?

What Jesus is suggesting to us Martha’s is this: not that cooking meals and doing the dishes is not important, but there is something even more important that is waiting for our attention. We are worried and distracted by many things; but some day all those things will be gone; meanwhile Mary has chosen the “one thing” that will never go away; the one thing that is the only thing worthy of ultimate devotion. The one thing that we might want to choose before we get out of bed in the morning and start our cooking and cleaning and running about.

The one thing that will be there, giving our lives purpose and meaning long after our careers are over and our to-do lists are checked off and our golf game has gone kaput and our very ability to get out of bed has come to an end.

The one thing that Martha would do well to find if she wants to live a life that has a greater purpose than holding the black dog at bay.

What is the one thing?

The answer, for many of us, comes too late; it comes at our funeral mass, when the priest processes down the center aisle carrying the Paschal candle and intoning these words:

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.

This is the only ultimate concern worthy of our devotion; the only concern that lifts us beyond the worries and distractions of our daily life. That we are alive in Christ. That we live for Christ. That we get out of bed for Christ; that we do the dishes for Christ; that all of it, the living and the dying, we do for Christ – who was in the beginning, and lives now and for everlasting, the Alpha and the Omega.

Only then will our worries and distractions fall away and our lives achieve ultimate meaning; only then will we find the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding. My prayer is that it may be so for all of us.

Somebody say…

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Big Harvest... Few Laborers

Sermon preached July 4, 2010
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way.” Luke 10:2

There are still some among us who remember the days when agriculture was just about the only major industry in Sonoma County, and agriculture in those days of course meant apples, prunes, hops, apricots and other fruits of the earth besides grapes.

In 1920, Sonoma County was declared the 8th most productive county in the country; and when it was time for harvest, everyone knew it. The word would go out that the harvest was ready and just about everyone in town played a hand in bringing it in. Kids would be let out of school and wouldn’t be expected back in until everything that needed to be brought in was brought in.

There was an urgency about the harvest, of course – because if the harvest wasn’t brought in soon enough the fruit could spoil on the vine. So even now, in just about every agricultural area imaginable, the harvest is a time of intense focus and sense of urgency.

And the last thing in the world you would want during the harvest is a shortage of laborers. A farmer can watch his entire crop go bad if there aren’t enough laborers to bring it in. No one rested until the job was done.

Which brings a note of urgency to Jesus’ saying that the “harvest is plentiful, but the laborers few.” Jesus is sounding an alarm bell here: this is a serious situation!

These days, of course, the harvest is mostly brought in by migrant laborers. Those of us who work at desks and cubicles don’t have much, if any, connection to the harvest. Sure, many of us have our personal gardens; but it’s nothing like it used to be when the entire community was working on and talking about just about nothing else.

Maybe this is one reason why migrant workers get so little respect in our culture – we are at such a distance from their labor, we don’t appreciate how important they are to our economy and our sense of abundance.

Regardless, I detect among us a nostalgia for those days when the harvest was everyone’s job. This isn’t a nostalgia for the back-breaking work necessarily, but for those days when the community was focused together on just one thing. There was one thing that we all had to do together; the case was clear and compelling; it was easy to understand; it brought the whole community together to work together.

Nowadays, there is little sense of common labor or common purpose. Everyone is off doing their own thing; we pass one another while driving down 101 on our way to Costco or the Outlet stores or whatever and don’t even notice.

I was talking to a former Marine the other day; he did three tours, including one in Iraq; and he said the hardest thing about being out of the military was missing that sense of being part of a larger, unified group like that. Having close buddies who would die for you and you for them; working on common missions together; being part of a team.

I hear that same longing from some of our more senior members, who remember the days of WWII: how the entire nation came together to fight that war; and more close to home, the Tea Room at the County Fair. The Tea Room was one of those projects that brought everyone together, over a very intense but limited time, to provide food and respite for the fair-goers. The whole parish was focused on nothing else, from the youth group to the old timers, and while it was exhausting it was also – at least in retrospect – very satisfying as well.

And so the question comes up: what is our version of the Tea Room? What is the activity that unites us to a common purpose? This is the perennial question, not only for us as a church, but for us as a culture, as a nation. On this 4th of July weekend, who are we as a people? What do we stand for? What is our mission? What unites us to a common purpose?

And here’s the challenge to us, both as a nation and as a church: we are so diverse a collection of souls that it’s unlikely any one single activity will unite us. At the State House, the Republicans and the Democrats are so deeply divided that they can’t even pass a budget when their own salaries depend on it. On the national level, we’re not any better – every vote goes through on party lines, virtually no bi-partisan support for anything. It’s pretty impossible to arrive at a common purpose if everything coming from one side is knocked down by the other side.

Meanwhile the national budget is soaring out of control, like the oil pouring into the gulf. Some days it feels like we’re on the Titanic headed for the iceberg, and the alarm has sounded, the iceberg is in sight, meanwhile the crew is arguing about whether to turn right or turn left.

In times like that, it’s important that there be a captain at the helm who says, “Ok folks, it’s time to stop arguing, this is what we’re gonna do now: turn left!” And the crew has to be willing to say, “Ok, the captain says ‘turn left,’ so everyone turn left!”

Right now, on our state and national level, that isn’t happening. We all see the problem; we all know that this is an urgent situation. And we are beginning to lose hope that there’s anything we can do about it.

What about here in the church? What is our common purpose here at Church of the Incarnation?

Well, one of the problems we have is that we have several common purposes at Incarnation. We don’t have one simple little soundbite that captures it all in one pithy little sentence. Our common purpose takes us in several different directions simultaneously. For example,

We worship together; and we believe in the importance of beauty and reverence in our worship. That’s one common purpose.

And, we care for one another. We believe that one of our highest priorities is to welcome one another, know one another, and support one another throughout our lives, especially when times are tough.

We care about the most vulnerable in our society; and we believe in translating that care into tangible acts of mercy, especially to the homeless women and children in the Living Room; the low-income and mostly Spanish-speaking children at the Luther Burbank School; the homeless men and women who wander in for coffee and pastries here on Sunday morning; the hungry residents of the Guerneville area who come to St. Andrew’s food program. So that’s another common purpose.

And we care about our experience of God, as mediated through fine music and art like the programs of Numina; and as mediated through our many small groups, where prayer, meditation, Bible Study, and deep personal sharing bring the power of the Gospel alive within us. There’s another one.

But what is the common thread that holds all of these activities together? What is our single purpose?

I believe the answer to that question is beautifully contained in the banner that hangs in our Parish Hall: “Christ has no body now but ours.” In all of these values, and all of these actions, we are embodying the life of Jesus in the world.

We are the Church of the Incarnation – God in the flesh. We are doing the things that Jesus himself did on this earth: healing; caring; listening; praying; reconciling; forgiving; prophesying; teaching; proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
We are living into the gospel by literally living into the Body of Christ. That is our single mission on this earth: taking seriously the call to be God’s hands and feet in this broken and deeply blessed world.

When Bob Gebhart goes out to a nursing home to bring Eucharist to a shut-in, it’s not Bob Gebhart who goes out, it’s the Body of Christ, alive in the world, working through him.

When the women of the Guild pull together a massive rummage sale to raise money for charities, it’s not just those women doing the work; it is Christ in the world, coming alive through their labor.

When the Numina Board puts on a performance that brings people from throughout the county to engage in art and prayer together, they are not doing this on their own; it is Christ working through them.

When you write a check to support the ministries of this parish, you are not just a random person writing a check: you are part of the Body of Christ, perpetuating the life of Christ through your support.

We are - all of us – a part of this Body of Christ. And I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a part of this with you.

We are the Body of Christ. I pray that we will continue to grow more deeply into our calling to be that Body in the world; and I give thanks to God for the indescribable joy that comes through this service.

In Christ we pray, AMEN.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"No where to lay one's head"

We had a wonderful meeting last Tuesday night, when we invited everyone to come talk to the Vestry about whether or not they thought we should join the North Bay Sponsoring Committee.

And as it turns out – surprise, surprise –we actually had differences of opinion! Who woulda thunk it!

At the meeting I could see that some people were uncomfortable with the fact that there were differences of opinion being expressed. But I found it to be inspiring –because it’s not about whether or not we agree on everything – it’s about how we handle our differences.

The Episcopal Church has never been the kind of church that suppresses differences of opinion. In fact, we find the Holy Spirit in the process of exploring our differences. We are not a conformist church that insists that everyone believe the same thing. Sometimes I wish we were – and that I was the pope who could claim some kind of infallibility. Because really, all of this would be so much easier if y’all would just see things my way!

But no; we are a church that honors the authority of each person’s conscience. That can be a tricky thing when we have a church as diverse as ours. We are, after all, a very diverse group of Christians: conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, evangelicals, Catholics, neo-pagans – how is it possible that we might speak with one voice about anything?

Some people solve this problem by simply avoiding controversial subjects. Better that we not take a stand on, say, immigration reform, than to take a position that would offend one of our members.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it? Because the Episcopal Church has never been a church that avoided controversy for the sake of keeping the peace. A casual glance through the resolutions passed at General Convention will show anyone that we take positions on all the difficult issues: abortion, women’s rights, civil rights, the environment, immigration reform, health care reform, the war in the Middle East – these issues are all addressed very directly by our church at every General Convention.

And the beauty of it is that I doubt any one here agrees with every resolution passed by General Convention. I certainly don’t. And that’s okay – because we know that it’s not the job of the church to be infallible. Our job is only to be faithful.

In Luke’s gospel this morning (9:51-62), Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is the turning point of the gospel. Everything changes once Jesus makes this turn toward the cross. We can sense it now in his whole aspect: he is heavier now; he’s deadly serious; he knows what he has to do.

And on their way they pass through a town of Samaritans. They are about as welcome there as a band of hippies passing through Alabama; or a busload of nuns driving through Las Vegas.

The disciples want to punish them for being so unwelcoming: James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” And the text says, simply, Jesus rebuked them.

We don’t know exactly what Jesus said, but I imagine it was something like, “Are you kidding? You want to punish them - when I am about to go to Jerusalem to die for them?”

And then the text turns into a series of sayings about following Jesus. Someone says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus points out that this is not an easy life – he is about to follow someone who has no place to lay his head. Another person says he will follow Jesus, but asks first, “let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Now what do you suppose Jesus is getting at here?

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus has nothing in principle against people burying their parents. It’s one of the ten commandments – to honor one’s father and mother. Jesus is all for that. But Jesus is also aware that something more important is being asked of him. This is not the time to be tending to the everyday concerns of your life. Something bigger is calling to you; something more important is happening right now and you need to be a part of it.

This happens to us all the time. Jesus, I will follow you – but first let me answer this one last email. Jesus, I will follow you – but first let me make sure I have a decent job with health benefits and dental insurance.

Or, as St. Augustine famously prayed, Jesus, make me chaste – but not today.
Throughout our history, we have been presented with opportunities to move forward with Jesus; and every step of the way, we have been saying, Okay, sure, but not today – today is not a good time; how about tomorrow?

When Dr. King led the civil rights marches in the South, most of the white churches were saying the same thing to him: “Sure, we sympathize with your cause – but not today. You have to go more slowly.”

The tension between the Episcopal Church and our larger Anglican Communion has the same quality: “Yes, let’s talk about full inclusion of gays and lesbians into our life – but let’s hold off on actually doing it. Let’s have a moratorium on ordaining any more gay and lesbian bishops; never mind that we’ve been talking about this now for almost forty years; we need to talk some more; and some more; and some more, and indefinitely, until everyone is of one mind.”

Some of us, I know, are extremely wary of this whole business. Many of us have been deeply hurt by church conflicts in the past. We have grown weary of the self-righteous pronouncements, the calls to action, the strident certainties of the activists.

We would rather that everything just stayed the way it is. But I wonder: what kind of church would we be today if we had shied away from women’s ordination, just to pick one issue that felt terribly divisive in its day. There’s no doubt that we would be a much smaller, more shriveled version of ourselves. And we would never have had the wonderful experience of Pat Moore’s priesthood, to name just one shining example.

There is no easy way through this business of following Jesus. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” When we agree to follow Jesus, we can’t expect to live lives of comfort and ease.
But when we take on these issues carefully, exhausting all the necessary cycles of prayer and listening and debate, searching our hearts and searching Scripture together, we might just find enough common ground to move forward together.

These are questions that Paul understood all too well. He came of age in a church at war with itself; indeed, he was one of the shining lieutenants in that war, bringing the battle to those heretics who dared to call Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah, the Son of God.

And then suddenly he was on the other side of the equation; suddenly the purpose of his life switched from tearing down heretical churches, to the much harder work of planting churches and building them up.

And he discovered that he had a problem on his hands: how were they going to be a community, how were they all going to get along, when they had pretty much thrown out the book of laws that governed them? Now that they had had no Torah, what did they believe? How would they live?

Paul addresses this situation in our reading this morning (Galatians 5:1,13-25) by being clear there was one law that had to guide everything they said and did: the law of love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

What does that look like in our own church? Exactly the same as in the church in Galatia: we focus on the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

These are the behaviors that build up a healthy community. In the end, that’s what it means to follow Jesus for Paul, and for us: to be a community of patience and kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not only to one another, but to those in our community who are not in our immediate circle. The Samaritans and the Romans; the lepers and the prostitutes; the Latinos and the homeless; the elderly and those in prison.

Jesus turned toward Jerusalem so that he would die for all of them and us. To follow Jesus is to be in deep relationship with one another, including our neighbors; to listen to them; to hear their stories; and do those things that build us up together, into a community of justice and peace.

I pray we may have the courage to follow Jesus today, and in the days ahead, practicing always the fruits of the Spirit.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Listening to the Spirit

Pentecost Sunday, 2010

In their own languages they heard them speaking about God’s deeds of power:
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia;
Iraqis, Iranians, Israelis; and residents of Iowa;
Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, and followers of Ron Paul;
Geezers and teenagers, spinsters and spinners; teachers and learners; criminals and saints…

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"

What does this mean?

A young woman I’ll call Sally hadn’t seen her mother since she was 16 years old, not since the night when her mom came home from a bar with a big hairy man named Griz. It was the middle of the night and it was a school night too; Sally was up late doing her homework when they stumbled into the house; she came into the kitchen to check on her mom and there was this guy Griz, who looked like some kind of Hell’s Angel; they were both drunk and carrying on, drinking cheap vodka out of a bottle right there in the kitchen, hanging all over each other; and when Sally turned to go this guy Gris made a lewd remark about Sally’s backside and made a grab for her - right there in front of her mother; and instead of getting mad and standing up for her daughter, Sally’s mom laughed as if it were the funniest thing in the world.

Well, that was it; that did it; that was the last straw; never again, she said; 16 years growing up with that alcoholic irresponsible abusive woman – no more, she said, and so she called up her boyfriend Mark and drove away in his car and she never looked back.

And for ten years she didn’t even see her mom; not even when she graduated from high school; not even when her mom joined AA and got sober and called her to make amends; not even five years later when her mom, still sober, got re-married. Sally didn’t even go to the wedding.

By then Sally herself was drinking pretty heavily.

And hating herself for it. And blaming her mom for it. She had tried so hard to get free of her mom – hadn’t even seen her in ten years – but she was still caught up in her.

And then one night she woke up out of a dead sleep; a voice was calling to her – it was her mother’s voice, calling her name. She got up and started packing her bags for a trip; she didn’t even know where she was going. And then the phone rang; her mom was in the hospital.

Six hours later Sally had flown across the country to be with her.

When I walked into the hospital room they were holding hands and laughing and weeping as if nothing had ever come between them.

Sally’s mom said, “Fr. Matt, this is my daughter.” And all I could think was, “She sure is.”

Amazing things happen when we listen to the Spirit. But the truth of the matter is that all too often, the call from the hospital comes too late. We don’t hear the voice calling to us in the middle of the night; the alcoholic parent never gets sober; animosities and grudges and addictions and self-pitying judgments continue to define us.

I’ve seen the look on a man’s face, standing outside a hospital room, unable to even come in to say goodbye. It’s not a pretty sight.

The Spirit moves on her own accord. Sometimes she speaks very softly. And if we don’t let ourselves get quiet, we won’t hear her when she calls.

It takes courage to get quiet like that. Quiet enough to hear the soft, whispering voice; the voice that will change our lives.

The other day a man told me that over 20 years of drinking came to an end on the day he began to pray.

He said the hardest part about staying sober is not the rehab; it’s not going to all the meetings and having a sponsor and working the 12 steps. No, the hardest part about being sober is simply opening himself, every day, to the Spirit of God in prayer.

The spirit speaks to us in our personal lives; but the story of Pentecost is not just the story of individuals overcoming their personal demons. The story of Pentecost is really the story of the church.

The story of Pentecost is not about me, it’s about us; it’s not about you, it’s about us. All of us, residents of Judea and Cappadocia, Graton and Forestville, Kenwood and Glen Elyn; all of us, divided by language and by culture and age and station; all of us, liberals and conservatives and moderates; fervent believers and ardent skeptics and the simply confused; all of us – listening to the Spirit.

On Pentecost, the Spirit has us speaking to one another and listening to one another in a language we can all understand. Are we listening together?

In the ancient of days, when we were still living in the Bronze Age, we used to wonder why it was that we were so divided. Why is it that it’s so hard for us to get along? Why is it that we speak so many different languages; that we can’t even understand one another?

And we answered that question by telling the story of The Tower of Babel. It was our pride that made us want to build that great tower. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” we said; let us build a tower that reaches the heavens. And of course, this was threatening to God; and as punishment he divided us into different languages and cultures.

It’s hardly a satisfying explanation, for all sorts of reasons, is it? And so, in the Book of Acts, we changed that story; God is no longer the source of our division, God is the source of our unity; finally, everything that divides us has been overcome; finally, the Spirit of God is bringing us together; finally, there is the possibility of genuine understanding.

The Spirit of God helps us find our common language: those of us from Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Sebastopol, parts of Marin; Sonoma, Rome, some Cretans and Arabs, some Petalumans and citizens of Healdsburg.
In Sonoma County, we are whites and Latinos, rich and poor, Catholics and Jews and Protestants; old timers and newcomers. We all live here; but are we listening to one another? Are we honoring the Spirit of Pentecost?

Three years ago, our local historian Gaye LeBaron wrote this about Santa Rosa:

"There is a disconnect between the average Santa Rosan's perception of the town and reality. ... What we have are a lot of people, some old-timers, some fairly new residents, who never, ever intended to live in the fifth-largest city in any area. And, frightened by new crimes, stalled in old traffic, watching tall buildings rise, they're mad as hell! When you stop to think about it, this revelation explains a lot. We have spent decades wondering why we couldn't save the Carrillo Adobe or the Hoag House, why we can't have a plaza like Healdsburg's or Sonoma's, why we've never achieved a proper historical museum like all the other towns around, why it takes so long (20 years for ANYthing) to reach the simplest civic goal, why we have to hire an image consultant to tell us what we represent. It's because we have outgrown the hometown, small-town advantage. We've become a real city while we were busy complaining about our farm town."

Sounds like the Tower of Babel all over again: a confusion of tongues, making it impossible to complete an ambitious task.

So it sounds to me like maybe the Spirit of God – or Gaye LeBaron, anyway - is calling us to listen a little more closely to one another.

And that’s what we’ll be doing this Tuesday night, when over 800 of us – Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Jews – and us Episcopalians - will gather in one place to hear our stories.

This meeting is the culmination of many years of very careful work, getting members of nine different congregations to listen very carefully first to themselves, and then to one another. Now, finally, we are gathering in strength of numbers, to listen some more; to tell our stories of mutual concern and to listen for the Spirit of God.

We are invited to attend this meeting – and many of us are going, just to listen to our neighbors, and to seek that common language, that common understanding, which is the fruit of the Spirit of God.

The Day of Pentecost has arrived. The Spirit of God is calling. It might be a soft voice, whispering to us in the middle of the night. It might be a gentle, constant murmur deep inside our hearts, inviting us to reconcile with a friend or a relative; it might be the voice of an elderly neighbor, or the voice of a grandchild; the voice of a child speaking in Spanish. Or it might just be the voice of our own deepest longing – for a family that is reconciled, a community that knows its neighbors, and is kind; a world that is at peace.

My prayer is that, when the Spirit of God calls us, we will hear Her call, and find the courage to answer it. For in that, there is salvation.

May it be so, Amen.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cream Puffs and Coffee

Sermon Easter 5, Year C
May 2, 2010

I have a very simple message today.

Sometimes the gospel message is just very simple; and there’s no need for subtle interpretation or beautiful sentences or crafty story telling.

I’m talking about this word, from Jesus in John’s gospel: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Or as that famous song puts it, “They shall know that we are Christians by our love.”

I notice that Jesus did not say, “They shall know that we are Christians by our beautiful building… they shall know we are Christians by our preaching.” Not even by our beautiful music.

No, it’s by our love.

As one preacher famously put it, “If we were arrested for the crime of being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us?”

Which raises the interesting question, How will they know? What is the evidence for this love?

This question was answered beautifully 2 weeks ago in Fr. Jamie’s sermon on John 21, in which Jesus asked Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and each time Peter said “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” to which each time Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”

Each time he asked Peter that question, Peter got more and more agitated; and Jesus had to say it three times - Feed my sheep; feed my sheep; feed my sheep – because he knew both how simple, and yet how very difficult, this proof of love is.

Our love is proven when we feed God’s sheep. And here at Church of the Incarnation, we actually kind of take that literally.

We prove our love, for example, at St. Andrew’s mission, giving away tons of food on Tuesday evenings, and putting on a community dinner twice a month.

We find proof of that love in Daphne V. and her kids, who on the Tuesday after Easter put on a beautiful Easter dinner out there at St. Andrew’s, with table cloths, flowers, decorations, Easter eggs and candies for the kids and gift bags for everyone, assembled by our youth group.

Proof of that love is found in the Rausch’s, and the Cramers, organizing the church pot luck suppers like the one we had last Friday night.

It’s Bob G. and Roger B. and the Nykamps and the Rausch’s and Lynn C. and everyone else who brings in donuts and homemade snacks on Sunday mornings – last week Ron brought in cream puffs even! Cream puffs! What greater proof for the love of God is there than cream puffs! And offering those treats in abundance, first for our homeless guests who come to Farlander on Sunday mornings, before anyone else.

It means being happy that we are privileged to feed our homeless friends; its having more than enough on hand, so those who are hungry need not be ashamed or ever made to feel inferior; it’s happily serving someone 3 or 4 servings if that’s what they want, before even thinking about feeding ourselves.

Proof of that love is found when no one ever is made to feel there’s not enough for them; and if there ever is a scarcity, it means always feeding our hungriest and youngest guests first. It means always treating our homeless guests with enormous respect and hospitality.

Proving our love is found in Marilyn P, cooking for The Living Room, our day shelter for homeless women and children; and Alice L. and everyone else who comes in to cook; and Peggy Z spending her mornings with the homeless children of The Living Room.

It’s Jose and Carla traveling to Honduras to serve the children there; it’s the women who run our thrift store, Heavenly Treasures, raising $15k a year for outreach, 50 cents at a time, and cheerfully giving clothes away to the homeless women.

It’s found in the Women of the Guild, putting on a rummage sale every summer and giving away the proceeds to charities.

And of course, proof of that love is not just found in food, but also in the food of relationship. It means, when we’re in Farlander Hall, actually daring to have a real conversation with someone we don’t know – like our homeless guests.

It means being in relationships that stretch us a little bit.

It means Mike and Patty H., and all the volunteers who give their time tutoring and offering support at the Luther Burbank School.

It’s never letting a newcomer feel ignored or unwelcome. It means that when we’re in Farlander Hall during coffee hour, we’re keeping an eye out for people on the edges of the room. It means that if we’re locked in a conversation with an old friend and we spy a visitor alone sipping coffee staring at the bulletin board, wondering if anyone would speak to him, it means letting go of our conversation, taking our friend with us, and going over to that person and introducing ourselves. And it means doing that, no matter if that person looks rich or poor, attractive to us or unattractive, and whether or not they look like a “good Episcopalian.”

It means offering the food of relationship beyond our comfort zones. It means getting to know one another on deeper levels; and reaching out beyond our boundaries to people of other faiths. It means responding to the offer of relationship that has been extended to us by the Unitarian Universalists, and the Roman Catholics, and the Jews, who all tell us they’d like to get to know us better and would like to work with us on issues of common concern. I believe it means saying yes to those relationships.

It means listening carefully to one another – especially to the poor, the marginal, the powerless. And it means not just giving them what we think they want (“Here have another donut!”) but giving them first of all the respect of a listening heart – understanding that they have something to offer us, just as we might have something to offer them. It means looking for relationships, not handouts.

It means taking those relationships seriously; which means taking the world seriously. It means that some people may not want our donuts; they may want to be able to drive down the street without being stopped by police because they look Hispanic – and they might want us to care about that, and help them do something about it.

It means that some people may not want our donuts, they might want to know we care about the fact that their child is sitting in the county jail because that's the only place he can get treatment for mental illness. It means actually wanting to help to change that horrible situation.

Its only because we are doing all of that, that we can enter into this gorgeous sanctuary and listen to this gorgeous music and know that all this beauty expresses our relationship to God; that, when we are done feeding the world, we can come home here, and be fed by this gorgeous building, this exquisite music, this Holy Communion.

It’s just that simple. The gospel is profoundly simple. Which is kind of bad news for those of us who would rather have something really complicated to think about, rather than have something very simple that we are expected to actually do.

My prayers is that we, who have so much to offer, will always have the grace and the courage to enter into these surprising gospel relationships, which come alive over bread and wine, as well as over coffee and cream puffs.

Somebody say… AMEN.

Living in a Both-And World

Sermon April 25, 2010

Lately I’ve been reading in the paper the heartbreaking stories of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Once again, we are forced to hear horrible stories about the worst kind of crime – a crime of abuse by a predator posing as a priest of God – but also of the cover-ups by the bishops and archbishops and possibly even the Vatican itself.

All this makes me wonder – how is it that a church can be both things at once – both a sacred institution where God is found; and a sick institution that sometimes does unspeakable harm to its children?

How can it be both? Because it is both. I say that because there is a natural tendency in each of us toward either-or thinking: either the church is a sacred institution that we must defend and praise; or it’s a sick and corrupt institution that needs to be completely condemned. Many people want to be on one side or the other of that equation; but the truth is that it’s both.

How can that be? How can a church be a vessel of God, and also be such a vessel for woundedness? How is that possible?

The same question rises in me when I’m reading John’s gospel. This morning, our reading from John’s gospel presents us with “the Jews,” who are often portrayed in John’s gospel, as unbelieving and even hostile to Jesus.

So we have the same thing going on. On the one hand, the Gospel of John is one of the most profound and divinely inspired books of scripture ever written. And on the other hand, John’s gospel is flawed because it was written by an ordinary person – a person who was deeply wounded, and who could not help but pass that woundedness along, even as he also spread an inspired message grace and salvation.

We’ve talked about this before, and I don’t want to belabor the point, but it perhaps cannot be said often enough that John’s gospel was written in a time, considerably later than the other gospels, when the early Christians were in the middle of a very bitter divorce from the Jewish community that gave them their birth.

So in fact, in John’s gospel, we find that bitter divorce taking on the flesh of the scriptures themselves; we find the term “the Jews” 55 times; whereas in the 3 other gospels combined “the Jews” are mentioned only twice – and in both cases, the phrase seems to have been inserted parenthetically, by a later editor. [This is not counting the times when Jesus is mentioned as “the King of the Jews.]

In the synoptic gospels – that is, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – it’s assumed that just about everyone is Jewish. Jesus is Jewish, all the disciples are Jewish, everyone is Jewish unless identified otherwise. But in John’s Gospel, because it was written in a time when the followers of Jesus were being run out of the Synagogues as heretics, “the Jews” are identified as a separate group from Jesus and his disciples; they are portrayed in John’s gospel as skeptical, narrow-minded, eventually hostile to Jesus, and ultimately murderous, first trying to stone him themselves, and then handing Jesus over to be killed.

So just like the Roman Catholic Church, John’s gospel is a mixed bag, both the inspired Word of God, capable of lifting us to the spiritual heights of salvation itself; and an instrument for woundedness.

And it is our job, as proclaimers of the Gospel, to admit our own flaws. It is our job, as Christians, to understand the church, and the Bible, both with the eyes of faith, and with a critical eye, so that we use the gospels for the purposes that Jesus intended, which is to heal a broken world and bring us into relationship with God through Christ; and so, to the best of our ability, we don’t pass on the woundedness that comes with it.

My mother was deeply wounded; she was abused by her own father when she was a child. And one of the best things she did – and she did many, many wonderful things – is that she did not pass that woundedness on to her own children. The cycle stopped with her. I praise God for that. And just so, we are called to do the same.

Some people don’t want to admit that the Scriptures can be both/and – both a vehicle for salvation, and a flawed instrument of oppression. They fight for Scripture to be one thing or another – because it’s more comfortable to think like that. Just as many people don’t want to admit that the Roman Catholic Church is a both/and institution – they want it to be either hopelessly corrupt, or divinely inspired.

But the fact is, it’s both. Just as we are living both in the Kingdom of God, where people are healed and transformed by Christ, and in a world of brokenness, where people are actually harmed in the name of Christ. If our eyes are not open to both realities, we are in danger of perpetrating the very same crimes ourselves.

Which is why it is important for us to be honest about our church as well. It’s not just the Roman Catholic Church that has committed abuse. 25 years ago, we had a priest here at Church of the Incarnation who abused several teen-aged boys. His name was Alan Papworth. As far as we know, that abuse did not happen here, in this sanctuary or anywhere on campus, but rather at his home in Windsor, with boys who lived in his neighborhood. But he did commit some unspeakable crimes; our church, and the Diocese, was sued for several millions of dollars – as we should have been; and he was defrocked and sent to jail.

So once again, we have a both/and situation. It turns out that that priest was a very sick and wounded man – even as it is also true that he did some good things while he was here: he ministered to the sick, he tended his flock as best he could; he proclaimed the gospel with sincerity.

We have no choice, if we’re going to be grown-ups, but to accept this hard reality, that we live in a both/and world.

But we do have a choice. We can live in a world of brokenness and woundedness, and see everything through that lens; or we can live in a world of rose-colored glasses, and be blind to the realities of life; or we can live in both worlds simultaneously; we can be both, in Jesus’ words, “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

Which is why it’s so important that we need to do everything in our power to be make our community as safe a community as we can possibly make it, for all of our children and all of us, together. Which is why it is so important for all our leaders and everyone we can get, to go to the training we conduct periodically, to help us keep this community safe.

But this is also true that when we enter into this space – this sacred sanctuary – there is only one thing that needs to be on our minds. Because when we step into this sacred space, we are stepping into the Kingdom of heaven.

A few months ago, there was a man – not a member of our parish – he came by, asked to speak with a priest. This happens quite often, actually. He told me that he had just learned that his wife was leaving him. I listened to his whole story and then I asked him if he wanted to go into the church to be alone and to pray and he said Yes; so we went into this church. And the moment when we stepped through that side door there into the Marian Chapel, he stopped, and he began to sob. He when he recovered himself, he said, “It’s just so beautiful here.”

Another person, who had just experienced a terrible tragedy in her family, stepped into this building for the first time and said, “You can just feel the energy in this place.”

She’s right.

There are people we know who feel that this whole campus radiates the grace of God; they say they can feel it; it’s all around us here. And I believe that, because I feel it as well.

I believe that this place has absorbed God’s sacred energy – the energy of lives in transformation and healing. There has been so much healing and so much love in this place that this building has become a container of grace. And the more healing that happens in here, the more healing that will happen here for others who enter this place.

Just as our Eucharistic elements absorb the grace of God when we pray over them, so this building absorbs all the healing, all that love, all that good will that happens here; all the good things that happen here; all the God that happens here. These walls, these pews, this brass, this stained glass – this is a hallowed place.
So sure, we live in a both/and world. But in here, there is only one reality: that is the Kingdom of heaven, alive and well, saturating us with divine grace, healing us and making us whole.

Whenever we open our hearts to that grace; without hesitation; fully, completely giving ourselves to God – no need for ambivalence here - we are fully giving ourselves to God.

It’s not easy living in a both-and world. But that’s what we’re called to do as Christians: Jesus, fully divine, and fully human; Kingdom of Heaven, both here, and not yet here; scripture, both inspired by God, and yet flawed; this church, both an instrument of healing and grace, and not perfect.

But we here, now, enter into that which is perfect, and beyond all understanding; the grace of God, alive here, in our hearts and in this room. We open our hearts to this grace; we give ourselves to God’s love, completely.

And we say, AMEN.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Practicing Resurrection

Easter Morning, April 4, 2010

So here we are again! The stone is rolled away, the elements of Easter are revealed: the empty tomb, the burial linens on the ground, the angels; and those poor disciples - at first, uncomprehending, confused, astonished.

And here we are, still: uncomprehending, confused, astonished.

Many Christians think that the preacher’s job, on Easter morning, is to help eliminate our confusion; to sweep away the cobwebs of doubt and uncertainty so that we can fully believe in the resurrection. They think this because they think that our ultimate achievement as Christians is to believe in the resurrection.

But I stand before you this morning not to help you believe in the resurrection; I’m more interested in helping you do resurrection. In the words of Wendell Barry [“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”], my job this morning is to help us practice resurrection.

Because to be honest, it’s really hard to fully believe in the resurrection. I mean, really – let’s be honest. Maybe not impossible, but the thing is it’s missing the point.

For hundreds of years, preachers have been straining their voices, trying to get us to think that the whole point of Christianity is to believe the right ideas about Jesus; and they are so sincere and earnest that for the most part we’ve humored them; we’ve said, okay, sure; we believe in the resurrection; sure, we believe that somehow the natural biological processes that, in every other instance turn a dead body into a smelly, decomposing mess were somehow reversed in the case of our Lord Jesus; sure, we believe that, because we’re told that that’s what we have to do believe in order to get into heaven.

But I say to you this morning – and I’m not the only one, there’s others, trust, me, going back to Peter and to James the brother of Jesus and Jesus himself – I say to you that it’s not about believing in the resurrection. It’s about practicing resurrection.

Now, let me try to earnestly and sincerely get you to believe what I’m saying.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was in seminary in Chicago, they had me spend a summer as a hospital chaplain at this enormous hospital on the Near West Side. They do this because they want young pastors to get used to the reality of death. Which is an important thing for pastors. So for one long summer I worked as a hospital chaplain and most of my time was spent going from one grieving family to another.

One day I think I dealt with four or five deaths in a single day, including a couple of devastating tragedies: a Filipino family who lost their teenaged daughter in a car accident; a young couple who lost their baby in childbirth; and then two or three of the more usual but no less important cases of old age and disease.

And I came home from the hospital that day feeling like a zombie; the smell of death was in my nose; the reality of death felt like an anvil, weighing me down from the inside. I felt absolutely depleted. So I walked into our apartment and I said to my wife, “Don’t worry; I’m not as bad as I look; but I need you to do something for me; I need you to not talk for awhile; don’t try to fix me; I just need you to hold me.”

And she did – for hours; into the wee hours of the morning. I remember falling asleep with my head on her chest, listening to her heartbeat and her breath. I felt like that famous statue of Michaelangelo’s – the Pieta – with Mary holding the dead body of Jesus in her lap; cradling him as if he were still a child. And slowly, as the night turned into morning, I came alive again.

That’s what I mean by practicing resurrection. My wife and I practiced resurrection; I was loved into new life.

As ideas go, resurrection is not an easy one to believe in. There’s nothing anyone can say to make another person believe in it. But as a practice, we all do it.

Parents do it when they raise their children to be happy, healthy, responsible human beings. Children do it whenever they give a grown-up a hug. Doctors do it when they practice healing; lovers do it when they listen deeply to one another; pastors do it when they teach their congregations to pray.

But – and I can hear your objections to this approach – what about Jesus? What about the miracle? What about the flash of lightning and the angels and Jesus, walking around on the beach eating fish?
Well, Yes! Of course! I’m sure all that happened – or something like it, something amazing, something absolutely incomprehensibly wonderful, something that turned an unimpressive bunch of depressed disciples into inspired preachers of love, marching off to the ends of the earth to die for the cause of love.

But why do you suppose - of all the people in the history of the planet - why do you suppose it was Jesus who was resurrected? Well, look at his life: way before he was resurrected from the dead, he was practicing resurrection. Healing the sick. Feeding the hungry. Listening to women and children and poor people; eating with outcasts and sinners.

Long before he was raised from the dead, he was giving life to others. So completely open was he to the power of love over the power of death that in the end, death could not contain him.

But Jesus’ resurrection didn’t just happen at the end of his life; Jesus’ resurrection was happening every day of his life; every day that he gave himself over to relationships of life-giving love he was practicing resurrection, so that in the end, he was resurrection.

Every time we look a homeless person in the eye and treat her with respect; every time we comfort a crying child; every time we feed a hungry person; every time we contribute to a just cause; every time we do anything to advance the cause of love – we become like those medieval alchemists, turning lead into gold; we are participating in this miraculous exchange; we take part in something like a chemical reaction that transforms death into life.

So in the end, resurrection is not something we need to believe in – because we know it. We practice it.

And this is why we say “Alleluia” on Easter morning. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is here. The dead are being raised to new life. The blind are receiving their sight; and our sin is being wiped away through the power of God’s love.

But that doesn’t mean resurrection just happens. It takes work and intentionality; it takes relationship. When I walked through the door of that apartment 25 years ago I had to bring a little bit of relational intelligence with me; I had to know what it was I needed; and I had to ask for it. And my wife had to decide whether or not she wanted to be there for me.

Resurrection doesn’t always just happen; it takes work and commitment and discipline and asking for what you need and taking turns.

Sometimes it means being the strong one; sometimes it means asking for help. Most of us would much rather give help than ask for it. But it doesn’t work that way. Resurrection is a 2-way street; it’s not something you give; it’s not something you control; it’s not a commodity that can be doled out like so many ladles of soup at the bread line.

No, resurrection is something that happens - when people meet in open honest loving relationship. It’s not some abstract thing that goes off in the privacy of your brain; it’s not something you will find in your “Fortress of Solitude”. No; resurrection involves relationship – most importantly, a relationship with the source of all life and love.

And by that, of course, I mean God; and not just any god, and certainly not any kind of vague, abstract distant god, but rather this particular God of scandalous physicality; this God of dangerous specificity: Jesus of Nazareth; born in the flesh; teacher, prophet, healer, champion for social justice [sorry Glenn Beck!], who died on the cross and is risen and who comes again into our lives every time we call upon his name.

I mean, sure, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing that says you have to believe in Jesus in order to practice resurrection; of course, billions of people do it every day. Anyone can put band-aids on scraped knees and hand-out sandwiches to homeless people; but what I can’t figure out is why they would never for a moment pause to consider the source of the love that they’re exchanging by means of those band-aids and sandwiches.

It’s kind of like the man who tries to cross a vast desert with a single canteen of water, when he has no idea there are springs of fresh running water beneath his feet, if he would only just take a moment to learn how to tap into it.

This is something I’ve never understood: why would someone insist on crossing the desert and only drinking the water from his canteen, and when that runs out, trying to make it across without any water at all – even unto death – when there are abundant springs of water right under his feet?

Well, maybe he doesn’t trust the water beneath the sand. Or maybe he just doesn’t know it’s there; or how to tap it. I dunno.

But what I will tell you is that not only is there an everflowing stream of fresh water right beneath his feet; there’s also a desert oasis, not far from where he is, with food, and friendly people, and a comfortable bed, and fellow travelers who have crossed this desert many times before – if only he would just pause for a second, take his bearings, get out his map, and look at it.

That’s what this church is: that oasis. We don’t need to be so alone. Our lives don’t need to be so hard. All we need to do is let go of this crazy, if not downright suicidal, idea that we can cross this desert all by ourselves with our one little canteen of water.

But, hey, if that’s how someone wants to go, well, more power to them; I mean, we’re Episcopalians; we wouldn’t try to stop them.

As for me, I will continue to come to this oasis; I will gladly continue to sink my bucket down into the fresh well of God’s resurrecting love; I will gladly accept the hospitality of God’s people; just as I promise to do my part to do the same for others.

That’s an easy promise to make; because I have come to trust this water; I have come to trust this oasis; and I have come to see that the only thing worth living for is the love found here; a love that is powerful enough to raise the dead to new life.

And in the Spirit of that love, I proclaim that He is risen!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!