Sunday, July 15, 2012

7th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 10B

7th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 10B July 15, 2012 Several years ago when my daughter Mary Margaret was about 3 or 4, I asked her if she wanted to take dance lessons for the coming fall. Her immediate reply was, “What for? I already know how to dance!” And then she proceeded to show me her moves. Not long after that, she learned some of her friends were going to take dance lessons, so she decided she’d give it a try. She made it through almost the whole year, and at one of the last classes, I arrived to pick her up and found her sitting in the corner by herself, sulking. When I asked her what had happened, she told me that she had gotten tired of practicing the dance recital routine over and over and over again and had wanted to do her own type of dancing, but the teacher wouldn’t let her, so MM chose to go sit in the corner by herself for the rest of the class. In the dance of life, have you ever thought you already knew all the moves, or have you chosen to go sit in the corner because you couldn’t dance the way you wanted? I know I have. Dancing permeates our scripture readings for today, playing a large role in the unfolding of the drama of both the Old Testament reading and the gospel reading. In 2 Samuel, David and the people of Israel are dancing before the Lord as they lead the arc of the covenant into David’s city. They dance with joy and abandon, “with all their might” with all manner of instruments, and their dance is a dance of celebration and joy, a dance of gratitude for their special relationship with God. In the gospel reading, Herod’s daughter dances before his guests at his birthday celebration, and as a result, Herod swears an oath to her that, through some political manipulations, leads to the beheading of John the Baptist. This dance, the betrayal that goes with it, and Herod’s unwillingness to choose what is right over what is easy, all lead to the end of John’s life and sorrow and sadness for those who followed and cared for him (including Herod, himself). We, like David, like Herod, (like Mary Margaret,) are faced with the choice of how we will dance. And how we will dance in turn affects others and how they dance. I read an interesting analogy of dance and the life of the church. Imagine you are responsible for 50 teenagers, and you host a dance in the church parish hall. You step out to go get a cup of coffee, and when you return, you find this typical scene: that there are 4 or 5 girls dancing their hearts out in the middle of the parish hall and everyone else, including all the boys, are hugging the walls of the parish hall. The writer suggested that this is an analogy for the life of the church. That there are always a handful of folk out in the center dancing their hearts out, dancing the dance of the life, death, and resurrection, with joy and abandon, with celebration and community. And the rest cling to the walls of the institution, afraid or scornful or unwilling to join in the dance, staying on the threshold where it is safe and there is little to be risked or gained. Mechtild of Magdeburg, a German mystic who lived in the 13th century, had this to say about the dance that is our life and our faith and our relationship with God. “I cannot dance, O Lord,/Unless You lead me./If you wish me to leap joyfully,/Let me see You dance and sing--/Then I will leap into Love--/And from Love into Knowledge,/ And from Knowledge into the Harvest,/ That sweetest fruit beyond human sense./ There I will stay with You, whirling.” How do you choose to dance? Do you dance with joy and abandon? Do you dance in celebration of the gifts and relationship God has offered to you? Do you dance for exercise or for fun? Do you dance to manipulate or to give joy? Do you dance for community? Or do you choose not to dance at all? Is God inviting you into a new way of dancing, a new way of being, a new way of living and loving?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

6th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 9B

6th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 9B July 8, 2012 A letter upon the occasion of the baptism of Clark Seemann and Tucker Wicks. Dear Clark and Tucker, Today we are baptizing you into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we are claiming God’s place for you within the sacred story that is the love story between God and God’s people. As you live and grow among us, we promise to teach you about this story, and to help you know and discern who you are called to be within it, and we hope and expect that you will do the same for us. In our story for today, we see that the Apostle Paul is still hard at work on the people in the church in Corinth. All throughout this 2nd letter to the Corinthians, Paul has been fighting against what my New Testament professor called the “super-apostles”. These are teachers who have come to Corinth and are trying to sway the church toward following an easier path to Jesus than the one that Paul has been teaching. These super-apostles use boasts about their power and their visions to sway the people of Corinth, and in an attempt to counteract their propaganda, Paul writes to the Corinthians about some of his own spiritual journey. Paul writes of how he was given a vision of being taken up to heaven where he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” But to keep him from being too elated, he writes that a thorn of the flesh was given to him…What this thorn of the flesh is, we do not know…But Paul was worried that this thorn of the flesh that had been given him would keep him from doing his work of spreading the gospel of Christ, and so he prayed three times for this impediment to be removed from him. And the reply that Paul gets from Jesus is the central core of Paul’s own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. What on earth does that mean? It makes no sense and even sounds a little bit crazy. Are not power and weakness mutually exclusive? It’s almost as crazy as taking you two perfect, beautiful baby boys and drowning you in the waters of baptism. It’s almost as crazy as your parents standing up before God and everyone and essentially relinquishing their claim over you and stating that from this day forth, you will belong to our Lord Jesus Christ, attempting to follow his way of life, and be marked as Christ’s own forever. And then we make our promises to you that we will show you and teach you the truth of this story, about how we find God’s grace to be sufficient and how God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. We will show you and tell you and you will teach us about this great mystery in which we try to live but never fully understand as followers of Jesus: that when we are at our most humble and our lowliest, then the power of Christ often reaches its fullness within us. We are most fully ourselves when we are least full of ourselves. We will try to help you to remember this and ask you to help us remember as well. And we will gather with you week after week and we will all celebrate together the feast of thanksgiving for all that God has given us. We will celebrate and together we will be a resurrection people, a people who know and experience suffering but who also know and experience and proclaim the power of Jesus’s resurrection: that no matter what happens, God’s love and God’s power are stronger than absolutely everything—even death. On this special day, we thank you for being an example and a reminder for us of the beauty and innocence and goodness of human weakness in your tiny baby hands and feet and selves, and we celebrate God’s power which is made perfect in your own weakness now, and even into the future, when you grow big and strong. We rejoice in your presence among us, and welcome you as our new brothers in Jesus Christ our Lord. Your sister in Christ, Melanie+

Sunday, July 1, 2012

5th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 8B

Proper 8B July 1, 2012
     Church conflict. Competition and a little bit of one-upmanship between neighboring churches. Power dynamics, and an appeal for taking up a collection for believers in need. All that is part of the context for our reading from 2 Corinthians today.
     Paul is writing, in what is characterized as his 2nd Letter to the church in Corinth, and he is asking them to renew their efforts in an important endeavor that they had begun a year before. He wants them to take up a collection, to go into a greater collection which he is gathering from other churches over which he has influence, to be given to the church in Jerusalem, which Paul has seen to be very poor and in great need. He reminds them that they had been on fire for this project a year ago, and they had pledged to help. But then we think Paul and the Corinthians had some sort of falling out; he wrote them a “harsh letter”; things got patched up; and now he is encouraging them to take up the task again. Add into that how Paul has some ongoing conflicts with Peter and James, who are the leaders of the Jerusalem church for whom Paul is collecting money, and how Paul uses comparison with some of his other less wealthy churches in the neighboring province of Macedonia (Phillipi and Thessolonika) to invoke a little bit of sibling rivalry and inspire the generosity of the apparently well-off Corinthians. It is quite an interesting story!
     It is also an excellent passage to use for a stewardship sermon, and the temptation to do such has been almost overpowering for me; I long to craft phrases that echo Paul’s encouragement to finish what they started by fulfilling their pledge when I learned earlier this week that our pledges for May were at 85%... But that’s not what I’m going to preach about today. I’m going to tell you about the amazing work that people in this church have done, primarily behind the scenes, these last two weeks, to meet several quite significant needs of people in this very parish. I made a few phone calls, and then a few others made some phone calls, and as a result, we have collected over $6,000 in two weeks to help people in need. My friends, if that is not the work of the church, then I don’t know what is, and I celebrate that, and I am so fiercely proud of you!   
     But we are not finished, and I’m not talking about the need to raise more money (although there is still much need, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt if you’d like to pitch in and help out—giving out of your own abundance to help relieve someone else’s need). We, like the people in Corinth, are being challenged to remember: to remember who we are and to remember “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ”; we are a people who are called to become more and more shaped and formed into his image. Paul reminds us that our identity is to be the people who belong to the one who was rich but became poor for our sakes. We belong to the one who emptied himself of power and prestige to become humble and lowly, and we are called to try to live more fully into that by our own self-emptying, letting go of our own priorities and self-importance, and allowing God to fill us with the priorities of Jesus which is a relationship with God and care and concern for other people. A product of this understanding of our identity is an awareness of our own abundance and a deep desire to live generously. And according to Paul, it’s not enough to give; the really important part is the desiring to give. He wants them not to just give money to help the poor in the church; he wants them to want to give money to help the poor in the church in Jerusalem, because they are all connected to one another as the body of Christ. He wants them to grow deeper in that connectedness and in their identity as those who belong to Christ. It’s not so much about money; it’s about our relationship with God (although how we give or don’t give, spend or don’t spend money is actually an important part of our relationship with God). It’s about our relationship with God, and it’s about our understanding of our connectedness to all other people of faith and followers or Jesus. It’s about whether or not we are too full up of ourselves to have any part of God or others in our hearts. It is about emptying ourselves like Jesus did, so that we might encounter the peace, the fullness, the abundance of God. It’s about paying attention to those times when you can feel God and the priorities of Jesus gently tugging at your heart, and you make the choice to respond. That is generosity.
      The other day, I was really late leaving home and coming to the office. I had a meeting I needed to get ready for, and I was somewhat preoccupied. I headed off down Courthouse Road on my usual route, and I passed a truck broken down on the side of the road. As I drove past it, I saw a man in the driver’s seat, and the head of a little girl popped up into the back window. I kept driving, but as I drove, I wondered if they needed help. I was running late; I needed to get to the office; but I sure wouldn’t want to be stranded somewhere with one of my kids. So I turned around and drove back, and I stopped and asked them if they needed help. He told me that they had someone coming from right around the corner, and he thanked me for stopping, and I headed on my way.
     There have been many, many, many moments when I have not responded to the tug of God’s love and priorities in my own soul (usually because I am just too busy, too filled up with myself). But in that one moment, I listened, and I responded. And even though they didn’t even need my help, I discovered that I had a sense of abundance about the whole rest of my day—a sense of having not just enough, but more than enough. I suspect this abundance was also shared by those members of the church in Corinth who gave to the collection to help those in need in Jerusalem, and it is what those of you have felt when you give to alleviate need here in our own parish.
     “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” Paul’s words to the Corinthians echo to us across the miles and the centuries. Live generously in response to all that you have most generously been given by our Lord Jesus Christ! May God give us the grace to empty ourselves, to listen, to respond, to be mindful of our connectedness with each other, both near and far, and to live generously and abundantly.