Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday 2012

Ash Wednesday 2012
February 22, 2012
In preparing to write today’s sermon, I read two different “opening lines” that are so great for today’s sermon that I wish that I had written them myself.
The first one is this: “Jesus did not intend [for us] to use Ash Wednesday to give up chocolate.”i
The second one is this: “Ash Wednesday is the day Christians attend their own funerals.”ii
Perhaps you are wondering, “Other than being two great opening lines, what might the first one (giving up chocolate), have to do with the other (attending your own funeral)”?
And in reply, I say to you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a blessing written by the late poet and theologian John O’Donohue and the blessing is titled, “For Death.” In this blessing, O’Donohue writes about how, from the moment you are born, your death walks beside you and about how when destiny draws you into spaces of poverty, you are quietly befriending your death… The end of this blessing is

“…That the silent presence of your death
Would call your life to attention
Wake you up to how scarce your time is
And to the urgency to become free
And equal to the call of your destiny.

That you would gather yourself
And decide carefully
How you now can live
The life you would love
To look back on
From your death bed.”iii

That’s what this day is really about. It’s not about what you are going to give up to make yourself thinner, more virtuous, or even more holy. This day is about imagining that you are lying on your deathbed, as you feel those ashes scraped in the sign of the cross upon your forehead, about imagining what you hope that life stretched behind you looks like. And today is about asking yourself, “How does this life that I am currently living look differently from the life that I hope to have lived when I am facing my death?”

This day is about accepting Jesus’s invitation to consider what practices you might keep (or give up) during this holy season that can help you draw closer to God and can help you live more fully the life that you long to have lived as you prepare to die.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. As we spend the next few moments in silence, I invite you to consider: “How, then, can you live the life you would love to look back on from your deathbed?”

i.Michael Battle CREDO meditation 2/22/12

ii.Barbara Brown Taylor Feasting on the Word Year B Vol. 2 p21

iii.O’Donohue, John. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. Doubleday: New York, 72.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany-Year B

Last Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B
February 19, 2012
“People leave.” It’s what an older, wiser priest, a friend and mentor, said to me recently. People leave. It’s the nature of life; it’s the nature of the church. People leave, and it’s hard and heartbreaking, and so very, very sad. People leave.
“Stay here” Elijah tells his friend and apprentice Elisha, when it is almost time for him to depart, “for God is calling me onward.” “I will not leave you.” Elisha says to him, so they journey a little farther together. When the group of prophets at the next town approaches Elisha, they say to him, “You know it’s almost time for Elijah to leave you, don’t you?” And Elisha says sadly, “yes, I know. Please, do not speak of it.”
Then Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here, for God is calling me onward.” And Elijah says, a little more doggedly, “No. I will not leave you.” So they journey on together a bit farther, and another group of prophets in the next town says to Elisha, “Today’s the big day for Elijah! He’s leaving and going home to the Lord!” Elisha says, “Yes, I know. Please, can we not talk about it right now? Don’t you see how my heart is breaking? I just want to savor these last final hours…”
Then Elijah says to him, “Stay here. God is calling me onward.” And Elisha says to him, “Truly, I will not leave you!!!” So the two journey a little farther onward together, and 50 prophets follow them to bear witness.
When they get to the Jordan River, Elijah takes off his mantle, rolls it up, strikes the water, and the water parts so that the two stand on dry ground.
“It is time to say goodbye,” Elijah tells him. “Is there any last thing I may do for you before I leave you?” “Don’t leave me” is what Elisha has planned to say. But instead, he finds himself asking, “Give me some part of you, some extra resources that I may not feel so lost, and so that I may carry on without you and do the work that God is calling me to do.”
Elijah sighs and says, “Only God can give you that. But, if you see me when I leave, then know that God will give you what you need.” And as they walk and talk a little bit longer, suddenly they are separated by a chariot and horses of fire, and Elijah is taken in a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha watches and calls out for him, but then he is just gone.
And Elisha tears his clothes and he mourns; and he allows his heart to be broken for a little while.
People leave.
Peter, James, and John go up a high mountain with Jesus, and there they encounter a glimpse of who Jesus really is. They witness his transfiguration, see the two greatest heroes of Israel’s history speaking with him.
Peter is so excited, he says, “Let’s never leave! We can build us shelter so that we can stay here forever!” But the voice of God interrupts those plans, and reminds the disciples who Jesus really is—God’s son, the beloved. And God tells them to listen to him.
And then it is time to leave. They head down the mountain together, and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and prepares to leave.
People leave. Parents and children. Spouses and companions. Siblings and friends. People leave. Sometimes they have to; sometimes they choose to; it is heartbreaking. Sometimes they are able to come back, and there is much rejoicing. And sometimes they aren’t.
We can learn a lot from this story of Elisha and Elijah. We can learn what it means to leave well, when it is our time to leave. We can learn what it means to walk with someone all the way to the end. As the one who is being left, Elisha is steadfast and faithful. He asks the one who is leaving for what he thinks he needs to carry on. His faithfulness results in his glimpsing the glory of God. He mourns his loss, and then he picks himself up and gets back to the work of being the prophet—trusting in God’s mercy, in the resources and gifts and the legacy that he has been given. And he listens to God’s direction and follows it.
He tells Elijah, again and again, “I will not leave you!” I will see you through to the end, even if it is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” It takes great courage to be the one who stays; it takes great courage to be the one who accepts the inevitable heartbreak.
But then, God gives Elisha what he needs to put the pieces of his broken heart back together, and he picks himself up, takes up Elijah’s mantle, strikes the river and the water parts for him; and he goes back into the world to be a prophet and to do the work God is calling him to do. And God says to Elisha, “I will not leave you.” And we see the proof of this in Elisha’s power and through his good works.
And so it is with us. God says to you, “I will not leave you. No matter what. You may be heartbroken and weary; you may wonder how you will find the strength to go on; but I will not leave you”, says the Lord, “and I will give you what you need.”
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, when we prepare to leave behind this season of Light and enter into the wilderness of Lent—where we will be invited by God to open our hearts once again to the Paschal mystery of sacrifice and grace, of death and resurrection. We will be invited to walk with Jesus to the bitter end, to allow our hearts to be broken and to taste the joy and to see a glimpse of God’s glory on Easter day.
Today, let us enjoy this moment, when we are all here together; may our hearts be nourished at God’s table to be faithful and steadfast, and let us bask in the Light of the One who will never leave us.

Here is the link to today's readings:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

6th Sunday after the Epiphany--Year B

6th Sunday after the Epiphany Year B
February 12, 2012
I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about a couple of questions. What is it that motivates people of faith? What is it that motivates us as a church?
In two of our readings for today, we see two different stories about lepers who are healed. But they are two very different stories.
In 2nd Kings, we meet Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He is a successful war leader, who has led his people in victory against the children of Israel. And yet, he suffers from leprosy. One day, his slave suggests that he seek healing from the prophet in Samaria. So a bureaucratic chain of events is set in motion. Naaman petitions his king, who sends word, with lots of pomp and circumstance to honor his great general, to the King of Israel, who becomes distraught until confronted by the prophet Elisha. Elisha sends word to tell Naaman to come, but when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, Elisha doesn’t even come out to see this important man. Instead he sends a messenger with Naaman’s prescription: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman is outraged. Sure, he’s been given his prescription, but it is not at all what he expected. And he is starting to think that these Israelites are having a laugh at his expense. Why on earth should he have to go wash in the Jordan other than to have these foreigners whom he had defeated laugh at him. Forget it. I’m going home. But then some brave servants approach Naaman and say, “Why not? So it’s not what you expected, but if it will heal you, why not try it?” And Naaman does. And he is healed, confessing that the God of Israel is the one and only God because of this miracle God has performed for Naaman.
Naaman is motivated first by a deep desire for healing, but his pride and his expectation of how he would be healed almost get in the way of his actual healing. He is given the prescription for healing and he almost walks away without even trying it, because it is too mundane, too beneath his notice, not spectacular enough to even merit trying. It is only through his encounters with different slaves, the lowliest of people, that he is inspired to lay aside his pride and his expectation and take a chance and be healed.
In Mark’s gospel, we see a snapshot of Jesus healing one particular individual in a long string of healings. Jesus has just been in Capernaum where Mark tells us he healed a man with demons in the synagogue; then he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and then he healed countless others who had been brought to him strictly for the purpose of being healed. Jesus has drawn away from the crowds to regroup and he makes the costly decision to leave Capernaum, a place of safety where he has done very well, to go out into the great unknown so that he can continue to “proclaim the message” of good news—that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” And so he begins to make his way through Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons.
Then we have our isolated incident for today. A leper approaches Jesus. This in itself is huge. Lepers were required by law to stay a certain distance away from other people, and when they did come near, they had to shout out the words “Unclean, unclean” as a warning for people. But this leper, perhaps upon hearing of Jesus and the things he was doing, defies convention, and comes right up to Jesus, falling on his knees and begging Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus, moved with pity, stretches out his hand, touching this “unclean” person and makes him whole.
Ancient manuscripts vary on Jesus’s motivation in this healing story. Our reading for today says he was “moved with pity.” It’s easy to understand why Jesus would be moved by pity or compassion for this man. Once a person was discovered to have leprosy, they were cast out of both civil and religious society. They couldn’t pray in the temple or go to synagogue; they couldn’t share the tables or the beds of their healthy relatives. They became solitary persons, completely isolated from their communities, their friends and their families. But other sources say that Jesus was “moved by anger—a much more disturbing image. Was Jesus angry at the man for interrupting his prayers? Was he angry at the social constructs and religious laws that had made this man a complete outcast?
Either way, Jesus is motivated by some strong emotion, and he chooses to heal the man, dramatically impacting his own life and ministry and legally making himself unclean by his physical contact with the leper.
What is it that motivates people of faith?
Last weekend, I was most impressed by Bishop Gray’s opening address to diocesan council. The Bishop talked about how we now live in a time when the culture no longer supports the life of the church. It is a brave new world in which we find ourselves, as the culture around us asks again and again what relevance the church and our faith have for them. Bishop Gray challenged us to evaluate what our motivation is, in this brave new world. Are we making decisions about our lives and about our church and its ministries out of fear? Are we motivated by concern for our survival? Or are we motivated by something else—excitement about what we have to offer this hungry world, creativity, hope, gratitude? It’s a question that is worth considering in the life of our own individual faithfulness and in the life of our church. What is it that motivates us? And if we discover that the answer is, in fact, fear, then how do we change that?
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus heals the leper, and the man is so grateful, so bursting to share the good news of what is happened that he ignores Jesus’s command to tell no one, and he tells everyone what has happened. Once he is healed, the former-leper is motivated by gratitude, and it’s not a bad place for us to begin, either.
I was reading a book this week which includes some exercises that have to do with cultivating discipleship (which is basically what the gospel of Mark is all about). And it asked two questions: 1. How has your life or the lives of the people you love been transformed because of participation in the church? And 2. What do you see happening in the lives of others that makes you excited about giving to your church? As I started writing my answers to these questions, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I remembered the people in the church throughout the years who helped shape me and mold me—adults who treated me with respect and named me friend, even though there were sometimes 60 or 70 years between us. I thought about how I knew, from an early age, that the church was someplace where I truly belonged, and I thought about how you are doing that for my own children. I thought about all the holy moments that I have gotten to witness just since my ordination 7 years ago—births, weddings, deaths… hard times and good times… healings and heartbreaks… and how each and every one has shaped me.
I thought about all the friendships I see at work in this place—those that have stood the test of time and those that are just being formed. I thought about how people rally around one another for support in times of need; I thought about the overwhelming generosity of people who have contributed so that over 5,000 lives were helped last year by our offering people basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, and care. I see people breaking bread together regularly and the intimacy and companionship that are shared there. When I took some time to list the things for which I am grateful in this church and in the Church at large, I was almost overwhelmed by the weight and the depth of my gratitude.
It’s one thing to say that we are grateful. It is another thing to cultivate our gratitude and then allow that to be our chief motivation.
As we approach the season of Lent, it is customary for people to give up things which separate them from God or to take on things which would help them draw closer to God. I’m going to invite you to prayerfully consider joining with me to take on two spiritual disciplines during Lent. The first spiritual discipline is reading the gospels with the bishop, which I’ll talk more about later.
The second spiritual discipline is cultivating gratitude—that is every day, making a list (either in writing or in your head) of the people, things etc for which you are most truly grateful. Let’s see what we can do together when we cultivate our gratitude and allow it to motivate us.
And may the words of the Psalmist be true also for us: “You have turned my mourning into dancing;/ you have taken off my sackcloth/ and clothed me with joy,/ so that my soul may praise you and not be silent./ O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”