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.