Tuesday, August 31, 2010

14th Sunday after Pentecost--August 29, 2010

The Fifth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

In between college and seminary, I worked at Stewpot, a soup kitchen and so much more in West Jackson, Mississippi. I'll never forget my first Monday lunch at Stewpot because it was my initiation into their curious Monday ritual. All the hungry, homeless, and elderly people who had gathered for the noon meal were seated at their tables waiting for lunch. One of my co-workers, Don London, would welcome them to lunch at Stewpot, and on Mondays he would ask them, "What do we say on Monday's at Stewpot?"
Someone or several someones in the crowd would reply, "We made it!" And Don would say, "That's right! What do we say on Mondays?" And others would yell, "We made it!" And he would ask again, "What do we say on Mondays?" And at least half of those blessed, downtrodden people in that lunchroom would yell in a strange kind of cheer or prayer, "We made it!"
After a couple of weeks of this strange ritual, I finally got up the nerve to ask someone what it was about. They told me that for the population that makes up the community at Stewpot, weekends are especially dangerous. For those who are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, the temptation to relapse can be particularly intense over the weekend. And for the elderly and homeless in that neighborhood, weekends were especially dangerous because there was more mischief going on in the streets.
So Mondays at Stewpot were a little celebration in which everyone was invited to celebrate that they survived the weekend to gather together for a meal again. "We made it" was an acknowledgement of the trials of the past , a shout of triumph for not being overcome by them, and a prayer of thanksgiving and hope for the future.
It was also an acknowledgement that not everyone did make it. Some did succumb to the drugs or the violence; some chose not to be there to eat; some were waiting to rejoin the community on Tuesday.
"We made it" was an acknowledgement of all that and a thanksgiving that we who were able had come together once again.
And so it is for us as well. Every Sunday is a feast day of our Lord's Resurrection, a day when those who are able, gather to be fed and to offer up our cry of acknowledgement of the sufferings and temptations of the past, of the times that we have failed, and our cry of thanksgiving and triumph and hope for the future. "We made it!"
This Sunday, this day of all days, it is especially true. In each of our lives, regardelss of where we are this day, what we have lost and suffered, we participate in Christ's death so that we participate and celebrate his resurrection.
And so, this Sunday, August 29th, this feast day of our Lord's resurrection, we gather together to feast on a foretaste of God's heavenly banquet, and we lift our voices together to say...
"We made it!"
What do we say today? "We made it!"
What do we say today? "We made it!"
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

12th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 15C

12th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 15
August 15, 2010
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…” Well, it starts off nicely enough. A farmer has a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He showers it with great time and care and everything possible for it so that it will bear fruit. But when he goes to gather the grapes, he discovers that it has only yielded wild grapes, which are not the fruit he was looking for and for which he has no use. So he becomes angry and vows to remove the hedge and the wall so that the vineyard will be devoured by the wilderness. He will allow the briars and thorns to take over, and he will even go so far as to command the clouds to rain no more upon it. Just to finish out this love song, a different voice begins to sing the last verse, which tells us that the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah…and they have disappointed the Lord’s expectations for them and will suffer accordingly.
So my question for us today is—how is this a love song? (Or to revert more to the language of the decade of my early childhood: “What kind of jive love song is this?”)
One of my joyful responsibilities as a parish priest is to spend time offering pre-marital counseling to couples who want to get married in this church. It is a duty that I thoroughly enjoy because in my time with the couple, I get to listen in on the love song that is their life together. However, our time together is not just all wine and roses. We talk about big topics and issues that will affect their marriage, and I try to help equip them with tools to deal with those issues. On the second time I meet with a couple, after I’ve gotten to know them a little bit and heard their stories, we meet and we talk about their expectations. I have this worksheet that they fill out with questions about their daily life and also any big plans that they have for the rest of their life together. It’s a multiple choice type thing, and it has questions like: “Who will take out the garbage? And the choices for answers are He will, She will, We both will, Neither will. Who will do the dishes? Who will work? Who will decide who’s job takes precedence when we move? He will, She will, We both will, Neither will. It’s kind of a silly little exercise, but it gets at something that is very important to realize about all relationships. With love comes expectations. It’s true about a marriage or a significant long term relationship. It’s true about a parent-child relationship, about a friendship. It’s even true about a relationship between a priest and her people. With love comes expectations. When expectations are met and fulfilled, trust is built. When they are not, then anger and hurt occurs, and trust is broken.
Now what is most challenging in today’s Isaiah passage is that it shows that God’s love is no exception to this. In this love song about the vineyard, everything that God does for that vineyard and every watchful expectation held springs forth from God’s love. It is love’s eager work. The passage says in three different verses (2,4, 7) that God expected, and the vineyard did not meet God’s expectations. And so God’s expectations for Israel also continue to be disappointed; God expects Israel to bear fruits worthy of their chosen status, namely justice and righteousness, but instead Israel does not deliver justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.
This is the part that is hard for us to talk about, is hard for us to hear. We have been reassured, over and over again, of God’s grace and God’s love that never ends, and we seldom hear that God’s love comes with expectations for us. We have been taught that we are entitled to all the benefits of love with none of its expectations and even demands. The demand, the expectation of God’s love is that we produce fruit, and not just any old willy-nilly wild fruit, but as John the Baptist says earlier in Luke’s gospel that we “produce fruit in keeping with repentance”.
Isaiah’s love song challenges us today to ask ourselves “what are the fruits of repentance and of God’s love that are missing from my life that God expects me to bear forth in this world?” Is it justice? Righteousness? Mercy? Compassion? Humility? Generosity? Joy? What are the fruits missing from our common life, the life of St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, that God expects from God’s church?
My brothers and sisters, we are called, as followers of Jesus Christ to a life of transformation and sacrifice, where we submit our own wild-grape-like desires to the love and expectation of our Lord that we might bear the fruit that God expects. We do this by spending time in prayer with God, not just talking but listening as God whispers to us like a lover what God expects of us. And we do this by following the way of Jesus Christ in all that we are and all that we do, continuously opening ourselves to be transformed by our encounters with others and with the love and grace of God. That is the love song that our Lord Jesus Christ sang and continues to sing in this world.
And the best news is this. That love song continues. It does not end on a note of disaster and discord. There are many, many verses in God’s love song, and it is God’s expectation that our lives be sung in harmony with the Creator of the love song and become verses of sublime beauty and love that we could never achieve when singing solo.

Monday, August 2, 2010

9th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 12C sermon

9th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 12C
July 25, 2010
Take a moment this morning and remember the person or people who taught you to pray…
For me it was my dad, saying prayers with me at bedtime every night; it was my grandfather, closeted in his study in prayer and sermon writing on Saturday afternoons while all his wild grandchildren tore around his house and standing in front of his congregation in his black robe, head bowed in prayer, on Sunday mornings; it was a woman named Jane Schutt, who treated me with such respect, even though she was an old woman and I a small child; it was countless number of Sunday school teachers, VBS leaders, EYC leaders, camp staff, and clergy. Even today, I continue to learn how to pray from people I read, people I pray with, the people of this church as we join in prayer and worship, and my own children and the children of this church.
In our gospel today, we have the first prayer lesson for all believers, the beginning of praying with and in Jesus. In this lesson, we see that preayer is so much more than just our own private conversation with God. It certainly does include that, (as Thomas Merton puts it, prayer is the communion of our freedom with God’s freedom.”). When we pray, and especially when we pray the Lord’s prayer, our freedom is not only in communion with God but also with all the other followers of Christ who have come before us and will come after us.
Let us look then with fresh eyes at our first prayer and our first teacher.
In the gospel of Luke as well as in Acts, prayer is an integral part of the life of Jesus and his followers. In Luke, Jesus frequently withdraws to places to pray (5:16, 6:12, 9:18). He prays before he chooses his disciples (6:13-16), when he feeds the 5,000 (9:16), the night before he dies (22:39-44), and even from the cross (23:34, 46). The book so Acts also emphasizes that through prayer, believers participate in God’s commitment to bring forth God’s reign.
The United Methodist bishop, William Willemon, has this insight into the Lord’s prayer. “[Jesus] has a definite, peculiar notion of what constitutes prayer. Prayer is not whenever I spill my guts to God: prayer is when I obey Jesus and pray for the things that he teaches me to pray for and when I pray the way he prays. Prayer is bending my feelings, my desires, my thoughts and yearnings toward Jesus and what he wants me to feel, desire and think. In most churches I visit, a time of prayer is often preceded by a time of “Joys and Concerns.” I notice that in every congregation, the only concerns expressed are concerns for people in the congregation who are going through various health crises. Prayer becomes what we used to refer to as “Sick Call” in the army. Where on earth did we get this idea of prayer? Not from Jesus. He healed a few people from time to time, but he doesn’t pray for that. He prays for the coming of God’s kingdom, for bread (but only on a daily basis, not for a surplus) and for forgiveness for our trespasses. It’s curious that physical deterioration has become the contemporary North American church’s main concern in prayer. Jesus is most notable for teaching that we are to pray—not for recent gall bladder surgery—but for our enemies! To be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is to pray like Jesus. … A Christian is someone who talks to God about what the Lord’s Prayer talks with God about…. A Christian is someone who is engaged in lifelong training in how to pray like Jesus.”[1]
Are we brave enough to do that? Are we brave enough to ask that God’s kingdom come into our world, into our lives? Are we brave enough to ask for only enough bread for today? Are we brave enough to ask for forgiveness of our trespasses? Are we brave enough to pray for our enemies?
The good news is this. Even if we are not brave enough today, Jesus does not leave us as orphans. He continues to teach us how to pray, when we pray the words of the Lord’s prayer, when we pray in worship and at the Eucharist, when we pray in private. Whenever our freedom reaches out to touch God’s freedom, whenever we ask, “Lord, teach us how to pray”…Jesus answers by sending the Holy Spirit, who whispers in our souls and says, “When you pray, say…”
[1] Theolog: Blogging toward Sunday; William H. Willemon; The Christian Century; July 23, 2007. http://theolog.org/2007/07/blogging-toward-sunday_23.html