Monday, October 26, 2009

Proper 25B sermon

The 21st Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 25B
October 25, 2009
There is some debate among commentators as to how to categorize our gospel story for today. Some argue that this is a story of healing. Jesus clearly heals the blind Bartimaeus, so I think there’s some merit in that argument. But others argue that it is a story about call. Jesus calls to Bartimaeus, and he gets up, leaving his cloak behind, goes to Jesus and then, after he is healed he becomes a follower of Jesus and goes along with him. There’s merit in that case also, so I would posit that it is a story about both healing and call. It’s a fascinating story, that has so many layers, and I am especially intrigued by the role of the crowd who witnesses the exchange between the two central figures of Jesus and Bartimaeus.
Let’s look again at the story. Our story for this week follows immediately after last week’s reading from Mark. Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem; the disciples have just been in a fight over who is the greatest and will have the most influence when Jesus comes into his glory in the kingdom. Jesus and co make a pit stop in Jericho, and on their way out of town, one of the local beggars, who is blind, calls out from the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Well, some people in the crowd tell Bartimaeus to hush up, and he just yells louder….At this point in the story, in a moment that is absolutely electrifying, “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ So the people in the crowd say to Bartimaeus, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ Notice the complete reversal in attitude from only moments before. The crowd had been trying to silence Bartimaeus (and their reason is not at all clear), but when they witness Jesus’s response to Bartimaeus, they offer words of encouragement to him and they even mediate Jesus’s call to him. So Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, leaving behind his one and only possession, and he springs up and goes to Jesus. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’—the exact same question he’d asked James and John that sparked the fight among the disciples in last weeks’ gospel reading—and Bartimaeus replies, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus then says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus regains his sight and he followed Jesus on the way—the path of discipleship that leads to Jerusalem and the cross.
It would be easy to try to relate to this story through the character of Bartimaeus. Each of us has wounds, a hunger for something, an emptiness that Jesus’s call to us promises to heal, to fill. Our wounds, our hunger are the forces that propel us out of our comfort, away from our security to follow. Then, when we are called by Jesus, when we are touched and healed, we see the world with new eyes.
But there is an equally powerful transformation taking place among the crowd in this story, and that is who I identify with this week. That moment in the gospel when Jesus stands still and then tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus is absolutely electrifying, and it is a moment of transformation for the crowd.
I have had one of these moments—these electrifying, transformative moments-- this week that I’d like to share with you. On Sunday night, a number of us were gathered here at the church for the first getting to know the new rector session. In the middle of that time, a young man named Robert showed up here, and he poured out his story to several of us who sat with him. He came to St. Peter’s in a moment of utter desolation, when the events of his life had become so overwhelming that he had chosen to end it, but when it came down to it, he could not do it. And so he came here, to our church, because he had been one of the crew who had painted the parish hall. In our time with him, Robert kept saying over and over again: “I just feel so lost.” And so we listened to him, and we began to formulate a plan to help him begin on the way to healing and wholeness. Now a few things are miraculous to me about this story. First is that anyone was here because we’re usually not here on Sunday nights. Second is that the people who first encountered Robert did not try to send him away or hush him up, even though he was disrupting our gathering. Instead, they listened to his story, and they responded with compassion and mediated Jesus’s call in his life—the call to health and wholeness. Third is the willingness of a wide variety of folks to rally around Robert, even going so far as being willing to raise a pretty substantial sum to help him in his path toward healing. My time with that young man and with those of you who are ministering to him has been transformative for me, and I give thanks for that, even as I continue to pray for him.
This next Sunday marks the end of our fall financial commitment campaign, and the Vestry and I are asking that you consider filling out a pledge card for your promise to support St. Peter’s by-the-Sea for the next year. My friends, whether or not you choose to do this, know this. It is about so much more than money. It is about how we, as a body of disciples, choose to mediate Jesus’s call to a lost and hungry world. We do it through rallying around one who is lost. We do it by opening up our church and inviting people in, offering them food and drink and wonderful hospitality, like the ECW did this week. We do it as we seek to discern who Jesus is calling St. Peter’s by-the-Sea to be.
Bishop Jeffrey Lee of Chicago said, “What we do on Sunday morning is the creation dying and rising with Christ. Do we mean this stuff or not?”
Do we mean this stuff or not?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sermon for Proper 24B

Proper 24B
October 18, 2009
In our gospel reading for today, the writer of Mark tackles the theme of greatness. In a part we did not hear today (or last week), Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem and Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for the third time. Immediately after that, James and John ask Jesus to grant their request to each sit in places of honor and influence beside him; a fight breaks out among the disciples, and Jesus calls them all together and teaches them that the way of the world in measuring power and greatness has no place among them. He talks about how, in the world, people in authority lord it over others…. “but it is not so among you,” he says.
“It’s not so among you.” I find it hard to understand what Jesus means by this. He has been talking about his death and resurrection; he’s offered the disciples a chance to participate in his resurrection; and they’re worried about the seating chart in heaven—who’s going to sit where and how much influence they’re going to have. How can Jesus say to them, “It is not so among you” when they’ve offered only evidence to the contrary?
I went to clergy conference this past week, and the bishop shared with us the sobering fact that because of a combination of different factors—the economy, the results of the stock market in 2008, and the diocesan commitment to pay the interest on the properties purchased by churches on the Coast who have relocated but not sold their other properties—because of all these factors, the diocesan budget for 2010 will have to be cut by $300,000— which will be just under 15%. However, the bishop is using the process of cutting the budget as a time to revision who we are as a diocese and to examine how what have been doing and are doing now fits into who we want to be in the future and how we live out our mission of “One Church: United in Mission. Inviting. Transforming. And Reconciling.” At Clergy conference, he invited all the clergy to enter into this exciting and creative process with him. As we broke into small groups to begin to do this, I became utterly disgusted as we all fought and squabbled over whose agenda and ideas were more important. And what could have been an invitation to participate in resurrection, through listening, prayer, and discernment, turned into a theological and doctrinal contest of one-upmanship.
In the midst of that I heard the words of Jesus echoing across our cacophony…“But it is not so among you..”
Then I came back home for yesterday’s funeral, and I found the truth in Jesus words. I found a love story: a husband and wife who were married for 60 years, and when the wife’s health failed, the husband showered service and care and devotion upon her until her last moments. I found a parish who pulled together to offer service—food, comfort, and a well-planned and well-executed funeral—to the family. I found people who were not worried with who was doing what job but who were just concerned with getting it done and doing it well and who poured themselves out in love and service to do that. And it was remarkable, and it was the physical embodiment of the gospel for me in a time when I sorely needed the reminder that Jesus’s words for his disciples and for us do ring true: “It is not so among you.”
At clergy conference, our speaker, Bishop Jeffrey Lee of Chicago, told us a story of how a Christian priest went to a Zen Master for a retreat. It was the practice of the Zen Master to offer a mantra for each person on retreat, and the Master said to the priest, “I have been reading of your Jesus, of his story, of his resurrection. Your mantra for this week is “show me your resurrection.”
Jesus invites us to participate in his resurrection by loving service to one another and to those outside of our doors. May we remember that the way of the world does not have to be our way. May we live into the mark of the cross made on our foreheads at our baptism and Jesus’s prophetic words for us at our best: “it is not so among you.” May we unflinchingly walk the way of the cross, through pain, suffering, sacrifice, and death, into resurrection. And may we have the grace and the courage to show forth our resurrection in every moment of our lives and our life together.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

'Til death do us part

I've have many encounters over the last week with different married couples. One of them has been long, fruitful, and happy, and it is nearing the end as one spouse is in the process of dying. I've sat with this couple and heard stories told and watched these years together culminate in a quiet waiting and watching, a being with until the very end. In one sense it is utterly heartbreaking to be with this man as he waits with his life-long sweetheart as she dies, and in another sense it is beautiful and natural even in its sadness. "I have absolutely no regrets" he told me at one point. "Every good thing that has ever happened to me has been because of her." I wonder how many people can say that and mean it like I see that he does?

Today I spent some time with my aunt and uncle who have also been married a while (longer than I've been alive). As they deal with my uncle's fight with cancer, it is again heartbreaking and holy to witness all the years of marriage that they bring with them to this point and to see how those holy moments together have formed and shaped them to walk this part of the journey together.

I've also spent time in counseling with a couple who's marriage is in trouble and with another couple in pre-marital counseling, talking about a marriage that is only beginning. There's a prayer that I pray with all couples in premarital counseling that asks God to help them "be worthy of each others' best and tender with each other's dreams". And I see that the common denominator in these long-lived, happy marriages has been an awareness that each one holds the other's heart in his or her hand and he or she is careful with that honor.

Now, I'm the first to recognize how challenging that can be to live into on a daily basis: when there are groceries to be bought, meals to be prepared, children to be cared for, laundry to be done. In the midst of the chaos of life, sometimes it's all we can do just to keep our heads above water. And yet, that's just not enough. To thrive in this fearful, holy, amazing, and life-giving journey of being married, of holding another's heart in one's hands, two people must be careful of the other at all times, and they must be aware of the honor that it is.

May God give all married people the grace and the ability to live out our common lives together and as the end of our time on this earth draws near to be able to say, "I have absolutely no regrets."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Proper 23B sermon

The Reverend Melanie Dickson Lemburg
19th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 23B
October 11, 2009
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions…”
It just goes to show that the old adage holds true, especially when it comes to God: Be careful what you ask for…The man comes to Jesus, looking for the key to inheriting eternal life, and it seems that he gets much more than he bargained for. Interestingly enough, this is the only instance in the gospel of Mark that someone walks away from the call to follow Jesus, and it is one of the few times in all the gospels when Jesus looks at someone and loves them. Many scholars suggest that this story, in Mark’s gospel, should be read as a healing story. The man comes to Jesus and kneels before him petitioning him, just like those who come to Jesus in Mark’s gospel and ask for healing. And when Jesus offers the man his challenge, the word that he uses for “go” is only used in Mark when Jesus tells people he has just healed to go and lives their lives and be free from their affliction. So what does that mean for how we read and relate to this story?
The man comes to Jesus, and he is obviously searching for something. He thinks that he is searching for the key to salvation, but he could really be searching for many other things: attention
from Jesus, justification for the way he has lived his life, answers on how to continue to live…Maybe, like so many of us, he doesn’t really know what he is searching for, but just feels the need to ask
the question and to enter into dialogue with Jesus. Mark tells us that, after a little bit of instruction, Jesus looks at the man and loves him. And then he puts his finger on the very heart of the man’s
infirmity, on the very heart of his weakness, and he challenges him to see these things about himself very clearly. By issuing his prescription for the man-- to go, sell all his possessions, give the
money to the poor and then come and follow him—Jesus offers a diagnosis and holds a mirror up in front of the face of this man, and the man (who thought that he was a pretty righteous individual
because, after all, he does follow all the commandments as the Torah teaches) realizes that Jesus has asked him to do what seems impossible and that he will never be able to earn his salvation or his
assurance of eternal life. It is only when Jesus asks the man to give up all his possessions and come and follow him that the man realizes that his possessions serve as an impediment to his quest for
salvation. And when he sees this picture of himself looking back out of the mirror that Jesus is holding up, he is shocked and goes away grieving.
Now some people hear this story and see this as an end for the man. They see that Jesus is pointing the man away from himself and back toward God, and that the man can’t handle this, so he goes away grieving, and that is it. But I’m more of an optimist, and I read this story and hear that this is just the beginning for the man. In the encounter, Jesus has held the mirror up in front of the man and has shown him a truth about himself that he did not recognize before. In doing this, Jesus opens before him the path or the way to healing and wholeness and eternal life. He asks of the man what seemed to be the impossible for him and he allows him to fail, for the moment. But it is that failure that opens the way for the man. Hopefully, he begins to understand, like the disciples, that salvation is not something that we humans can ever earn, but for God nothing is impossible. It is only upon realizing that he cannot earn his own salvation that the man can move beyond himself and focus on what he can do, and he can move toward what God is doing in his life, who God is calling him to be, and how to live more fully into that reality.
This past Thursday, I went to a retreat in Jackson for a program that I’m in discernment about entering. It’s called Journey Partners and it’s a two year training program in how to be a spiritual director, how to be engaged in holy listening. This retreat came upon the heels of a very busy week, when I had worked a great deal and seen my family very little, and I still had so much work that was waiting for me to come home to. As I sat in my seat and learned about the program, I began to be more and more excited, imagining how life-giving and energizing this work could be to me and my own spiritual life. And then they told me the requirements: three week-long retreats a year for two years and at least 4 written reports and five books to be read before each retreat. In my heart, I laughed (but not really in a good way) because I saw that Jesus was calling me to something good and life-giving, but in it, he was also asking me to take on more of the very thing that had been so overwhelming for me this past week—more work and less time with my family. I sat there stunned, uncertain how I would respond to this call.
“How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
In our Christian formation class this past Wednesday night, we discussed the spiritual practices of counting our blessings and naming our anxieties. Each person had a piece of paper and was invited to count their blessings on one and name their anxieties on another. The most surprising part of this exercise was when we all discovered that we had the same things on the two different lists. On our blessings lists were things such as family, health, etc, and on our anxieties list were something happening to our family, health, etc. How are we able to heed God’s call to give up or take on, how are we able to hear Jesus’s call to follow when our blessings and our anxieties are so closely intertwined? What of these blessings or anxieties might Jesus be calling you to give up in order to be more healthy, more whole?
We, like the young man, come to Jesus in search of something. And when he offers us a prescription for healing and eternal life, a true picture of who we are and what ails us, we often turn away in grief, thinking he asks of us the one thing we cannot give up or take on. The good news is that it often takes our failure to help us recognize that nothing we can do can earn us eternal life. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” God wants eternal life for each and every one of us and offers it to us despite of, and in and through our failure. May we be able to witness the sight of Jesus looking at us and loving us, offering us freedom and eternal life, no matter who we are or what we think we can do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Use Your Words

Last night, David took MM to her soccer game and I was at home with Jack. It got to be supper time, and he began to make noises signifying his increasing hunger. I cooked him a couple of hot dogs and he waiting impatiently for them to cook and cool. Finally, when I told him it was supper time, he ran over to his high chair, eager to begin.

I cut up the hot dog into quarters and gave him a few bits at a time, and then I would go off in the kitchen and do some other things. I would invariably hear Jack make his loud, demanding sound that signifies that he wants something, so I would go back to the table and talk to him. "What do you want?" I would ask kindly. "Do you want more hot dog?....Then use your words; say, 'More, please.' He would look at me for a moment and then he would say, "Pweese." (In a voice so sweet to make any mamma's heart melt.)

We did this routine several times, and I began to grow slightly weary of it, wondering how long it would take to train him to use his words when he wanted more rather than just yelling for it. But then everytime he said that one word, "Pweese," he would look so proud and I would feel such great joy.

I wonder about how, in our lives, God encourages us to "use our words." What times in my life are the spiritual equivalent of sitting in my high chair and yelling because I need something? Is God the one there encouraging me to examine what it is exactly that I am yelling for and urging me to use my words to ask for it rather than seeking it in inappropriate ways? Does it warm God's heart to hear me offer my equivalent of "Pweese" to God, and does God rejoice in each person's one small step toward living in God's kingdom?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Proper 22B sermon

After much blood, sweat and tears, and much thanks to the Blanchards for keeping me supplied with coffee after my pot malfunction in the late hours of Saturday night, here's this week's sermon.

18th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 22B
October 4, 2009
Once there was couple who was on their way to get married. While en route, they have a fatal car accident and both are killed. When they get to heaven, the couple asks St. Peter if they can still get married . Peter says to them, “I don’t know. This is the first time we’ve ever had that request. Let me go find out…” and he leaves . The couple sit for three months and begin to wonder if they really should get married in heaven, what with eternity hanging over their heads. “What if it doesn’t work out?” they wonder. “Will we be stuck together forever?” St. Peter finally returns, looking somewhat bedgraggled. “Yes,” he informs them, “You can get married in heaven.” “Great,” says the couple, “but what if things don’t work out?” Could we also get a divorce in heaven?” St. Peter turns red in the face and throws his clip-board onto the ground. The couple looks alarmed as St. Peter says to them, “It took me three months to find a priest up here! Do you have any idea how long it’s going to take for me to find a lawyer?!”
I’ve spent an untold number of hours this week agonizing over our readings for today, and there’s just no easy way around any of them. In the gospel, we have Jesus being questioned about divorce by first the Pharisees and then his disciples. But it helps if we look at the whole picture rather than just what Jesus has to say about divorce. First, note that Jesus does not instigate this discussion on divorce. The Pharisees bring the question to him in yet another attempt to trap him. There were two different schools of thought about divorce at the time: one said that only sexual misconduct was grounds for divorce while the other maintained that anything the man deemed offensive (such as burning his dinner) could be grounds for divorce. By bringing this question to Jesus, the Pharisees were trying to force Jesus to choose a side. But as usual, Jesus refuses to play their game, turning the question back to them: “What did Moses command you?” Jesus then tells them that divorce is even an issue because of their hardness of heart and that God’s intention was for all to be in communion with God and each other. Jesus is speaking in broader terms, beyond the institution of marriage, and talking about the Kingdom of God and how we try to make up rules for who’s in and who’s out, but in reality, God wants everyone and everything to be in communion with God. The Kingdom of God will not be limited by our hardness of heart.
But then, there’s another glimpse of Jesus’s teachings about the Kingdom of God in our gospel reading for today. Later, when Jesus and the disciples are in a house, some people bring their children to him to bless, and the disciples try to turn the children away, and Jesus’ rebukes the disciples and tells them to let the children come to him, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Again, we see Jesus placing himself between the most vulnerable, the powerless ones and the disciples’ hardness of heart. And he is also lifting up certain characteristics before the disciples for their emulation in their pursuit of the kingdom of God. Children are unselfconscious, receptive, and content to be dependent upon others’ care and bounty.
And then there’s Job. What on earth do we do with Job? I will confess to you that the entire book of Job makes me very uncomfortable. There’s Job, who’s minding his own business, doing what is right and then this heavenly poker match between God and the satan (or the heavenly prosecuter), with the stakes being Job and all that he has and is. And then there’s Mrs. Job, who often gets a bad rap, but who is equally affected by it all as her husband. Finally, after they have lost all their children, all their livestock, practically everything, she tells Job, “Just end it already—curse God and die and end our suffering and pain and loss” and Job responds to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” And that’s really where it gets me. I’m all for being thankful for God for our blessings, and it is an essential part of our spiritual lives—remembering that God is God and we are not and acknowledging all the good things that we have from God and making our offering as a grateful response. But I have a really hard time attributing the bad things that happen to me and in the world to God. I cannot reconcile my understanding of God as the giver of all good gifts, who wants to be in relationship with us, with Job’s statement that we need to take both the good and the bad from God.
I’ve been reading a book by the Episcopal priest, Robert Capon called Health, Money, and Love and why we don’t enjoy them. It’s an interesting book , and in it, Capon talks about how happiness and happen have the same root word, and how we often make a mistake in thinking that happiness is something that has to befall us or happen to us. He even talks about how life is like a Divine Crapshoot, with God being the honest casino owner who” lets the unloaded dice roll the way they want …lets the cards in the blackjack shoe lie in any unstacked order the shuffle determines…lets the roulette wheel turn at its own pleasure. And then—precisely and only because he is a master of the odds-- gets the exact result he wants without interfering with the freedom of anything.” Life happens, Capon seems to say, and God lets it.
Now, whether or not you agree with Capon’s image of God and our existence (and honestly, I’m not sure where I stand on it), each of us, at one time or another, has experienced a sense of powerlessness. We have all encountered at least one thing in our lives that is ultimately beyond our control, whether that is another person, such as a spouse or a child or a parent or whether it is circumstances themselves. Children experience their own powerlessness on a daily basis, and this fact, I believe is at the heart of what Jesus was getting at when he spoke of how they will inherit the Kingdom of God. What is key in our participation of the Kingdom of God is not so much fretting about why we are suffering but instead focusing on how we are suffering. Does our suffering inspire us to open our hearts and feel compassion for the plight of others, or does it cause us to harden our hearts?
Now, even though I am not convinced I accept Capon’s image of God, I do like how he later elaborates on this idea and I think it gets to the heart of what we believe about the kingdom of God and how we attempt to live in God’s kingdom in the here and now. He writes, “ …Happiness lies in our ability to accept everything that happens and then either enjoy it gratefully or reconcile it patiently. We may not be able to control all of the things that happen outside us, or even very many of the things that happen inside us; but since we are in control of both our gratitude and our patience, there is always and in every circumstance a path open to the happiness that God already has over everything. Such happiness is not cheap, of course: it cost even God some terrible hours on the cross. But it is available…”
Even in our darkest moments, in moments of our most intense pain and suffering and evil, God’s grace and mercy, God’s forgiveness and abundance is available to us. And it is the message of the cross and the way into the Kingdom of God. It is about recognizing that life happens, we will suffer, and it is how we suffer that makes all the difference. Do we accept that we are powerless and let go of our desire to control, accepting the good with grateful hearts and bearing with the bad in patience? Or do we allow our hearts to be hardened by what we experience and close ourselves off from the very purpose of our existence which is to be in communion with God and with each other?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sabbath is a state of mind

The house is quiet. The baby is asleep and MM is at soccer practice with her daddy. I'm drinking a glass of wine and breathing deeply.

I don't have a sermon for Sunday. (Well, truth be told, I have five sermons for Sunday all smooshed into one; so I need to discern which one needs to be preached this Sunday.)I have to work much of the weekend--meeting tomorrow in Madison and meeting Saturday in Jackson. But there have been and will be moments of Sabbath in the midst.

My mom was here for two nights, helping get MM's room in order and hanging pictures in my home. There's something holy about being with my mother...we cook and work together easily, but it's also that with her around, I'm not just a wife and a mother but I also get to be a daughter. I name that as holy time for me this week.

I took J to the grocery store yesterday and we played a silly game where I stuck the post-it note list on my nose and pretended to sneeze it off, and he laughed and laughed, great big baby belly-guffaws. That is holy time for me this week.

Fridays are holy time, when I don't go into the office and get to hang out with David and Jack.

Tomorrow I meet with my spiritual director, more holy time that helps me gain perspective.

And tomorrow night, I get to have supper with two of my oldest friends...together they help me remember who I have been, even as I realize that who I am now is almost a different person.

Sabbath time is when I stop and recognize God's presence in my life and in the world. When I remember that God is God and I am not, and when I can give thanks for that reminder and that orientation.

Quiet house. Glass of wine. End of a work-week. Amen.