Sunday, November 30, 2014

The First Sunday of Advent

Advent 1 Year B November 30, 2014 “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” And so we enter this new year of the church, this first Sunday of Advent with a bang! These words of Isaiah are a rather dark beginning as we begin telling the story all over again for another year. It is both strange and appropriate that we begin with a lament where we see both a baffling God who hides from God’s people and a redeeming God who is their father and maker. Composed sometime after the children of Israel are taken into captivity in Babylon and before the rebuilding of the temple, this portion of Isaiah reflects the people of God’s disorientation in the wake of a devastating exile. And we know a little of that disorientation, don’t we? We live in a time of already and not yet; a contradictory time of frenzied activity and a strange sort of emptiness; a time of both unceasing access to other people and ideas and a deep longing for fulfillment and meaningful connection. This season of Advent can be for us a disorienting season that is “marked in equal measures by joyful anticipation and hectic, even pressured, preparation. Dinners, buying gifts, parties, cards, school holiday programs... [And, oh, the decorating!] Each and all of it can be wonderful, and each and all of it can become rather overwhelming.”i But one of the gifts of Advent is that it shakes the church and us out of Ordinary Time with the insistent news that it’s time to think about fresh possibilities for fulfillment and human wholeness. It’s a bit contradictory, this fresh start, this season of hope in the midst of this season of darkness. It is not nearly as easy to be hope-filled and expectant as we slowly slink toward winter and cold, dark days. And many of us fear the dark. It is when the familiar landscape suddenly becomes strange and sinister and unfamiliar. During Advent, we are invited, even encouraged to dwell in the dark for just a season, to search out the hidden God in the dark corners of our world and our souls, searching by the light of just a couple of candles. And that is very counter to what is going on in the world around us. One commentator writes that she recalls a comment that “our country has changed over the past years from one that wanted to be good to one that wants to feel good. We see some of this desire every Christmas season as people run from store to store and shopping mall to shopping mall searching for the things that will bring them and their families some sort of fulfillment and happiness.”ii Advent is a season where we are invited to dwell with our longing without trying to rush to fill it, where we live in the tension of our relationship with a God who is at times hidden and who is at other times fully present and actively redeeming. And what we long for, really, that we rush to fill isn’t more. We long for peace. And we cannot create peace for ourselves through selfishness. Peace comes when we open ourselves to vulnerability, to brokenness. Peace comes when we open ourselves to hope. Peace comes when we are willing to go a little deeper, to dwell in the dark, to peek around and become friends with what we might find there. So perhaps…our task this Advent is to be the ones who look to do good above trying to feel good. Perhaps our task this Advent is to dwell in the dark a little while, to sit with our own longing and with the longing of others. We do this by looking for Jesus in the need of those around us and to be awake to God’s presence in response to our own need. In this season of making lists and checking them twice, I invite you to make a different sort of list –call it an Advent list. You can make this list in your head or on paper, but I want you to list a few of the things that will occupy your Advent this year. Now, think about how in each of those events and activities you might be more attentive to the vulnerability and need of those around you and more honest and open about your own need that you might receive the care of others. iii I’ll leave you with some words from the poet T.S. Eliot to help guide you in the making of your Advent lists: “I said to my soul, be still and let/ the dark come upon you/which shall be the darkness of God.” i. David Lose on his blog: ii. from Feasting on the word Pastoral perpective p 4 iii. This idea came from David Lose on his blog:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

23rd Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 28A

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 28A November 16, 2014 Someone once said to me that we become like the God we adore. That statement springs to mind in contemplating this latest in the challenging parables of Jesus brought to us by Matthew’s gospel. Jesus tells the story of a master who is preparing to go away on a journey, but before he goes he entrusts a total of 8 talents to three of his slaves. To the first slave, he gives 5 talents, to the second 2 and to the third one. Then he goes away for a long time, and the first two slaves are hard at work to make more money for their master, but the third slave takes his one talent and buries it in the ground. When the master returns, he is very happy with the first two slaves and very angry with the third slave. What first strikes me in this parable is that the first two slaves and the third slave have different expectations/understanding of the master. The first two believe in a master that would empower them and appreciate them for going out and getting a good return on his money. The third slave expects the master to be “a harsh man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not scatter seed” and the slave acts, accordingly, out of fear and buries his talent. Interestingly enough, there is little evidence in the parable that the master is really this way, although he does live into the slave’s expectations in the end. In fact, the evidence we have up to that point is that the master is, in fact, crazy generous with his money. 1 talent in that time is worth over 15 years of earnings for the average day laborer. So at the beginning of the parable, we see the master entrusting the three slaves with a total of 120 years worth of earnings. What we expect of a given situation, event, person, and even God very much determines our experience. “For some God is loving and kind like a benevolent grandparent. For others God is stern and judgmental. For some God is protective, for others God is always on the verge of anger. For some God is patient and long-suffering, while for others God is impatient and dour. These pictures shape not just how we think about God but how we actually experience so many events in our day to day life that we connect—often unconsciously—to God and our life of faith.” So, I invite you to take a few moments now (and this may be a process that you continue in the coming week) to reflect upon/pray about the question What God do you see? What God do you expect? Think about both your own positive and negative images of God. This week, I read a blog post by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer, who is one of my favorite spiritual writers of our day. In this blog post, Palmer writes about how he has been doing discernment work with a Quaker clearness committee. He has been reflecting on age and vocation, being mindful of how at 75 he is no longer able to do as much of it as quickly as he has done in the past. So he went to the clearness committee with the question, “What do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang onto?” (This seems to be the essential difference between the success of the first two slaves and the failure of the third in today’s parable. The first two let go of the master’s money to make more, and the third hangs onto it to keep it safe. The first way is an open-handed, trust and hope-filled way of being in the world. The second is a fearful, grasping way of being in the world.) But to continue Parker Palmer’s story, after he meets with the clearness committee, Palmer did not come out with an answer to the question, “What do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang onto?”. Instead, he came out with a slightly different and better question that made all the difference for him. “What do I want to let go of and what do I want to give myself to?” He writes, “I now see that ‘hanging on’ is a fearful, needy, and clingy way to be in the world. But looking for what I want to give myself to transforms everything. It’s taking me to a place where I find energy, abundance, trust, and new life.” So the second question I invite you to reflect upon today and in the coming week is “What in your life, in your faith, do you want to let go of, and what do you want to give yourself to?” i.David Lose at ii.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

22nd Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 27A

22nd Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 27A November 9, 2014 Much of life, it seems, is spent in waiting. We all wait for so many different things. We wait for good news and for bad news. We wait for calls back about the potential job, for test results to come back, and to see the doctors. We wait for the weekend, for vacation, for holidays. We wait to see those we love. We wait for reconciliation, for healing, for new life and opportunity. We wait for things to return to “normal.” Some folks are even waiting to die. There is much waiting going on in our lives and in our world, and there is much waiting going on in our readings for today. Jesus is waiting in the in-between time between his entry into Jerusalem and his arrest and crucifixion. He knows it’s coming, and yet he is waiting, carrying on with his teaching and his ministry. The Thessalonians are waiting for Jesus’ return—only 20 or so years after his ascension—they are thinking that he’s going to come back any day now. Matthew’s community is waiting, still 20-something years later, in the midst of persecution and hardship—still waiting for Jesus’s return. It seems that everybody is waiting for something these days. I wonder, what are you waiting for? Our parable for today, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, is only found in Matthew’s gospel. It’s a little bit confusing and archaic, and yet it still has much to teach us about waiting. Jesus begins by saying, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” Then he goes on to tell the story of a bridegroom who is unreasonably, unrealistically late. The bridesmaids, who are probably his own relatives, wait for him to come so they can fulfill their duty and light his way from his bride’s family’s house to his family’s house where the wedding banquet will be. All 10 of the bridesmaids fall asleep because of the advanced hour and the unexpected delay, but there are two elements in the story that separate the wise bridesmaids from the foolish bridesmaids. First, the wise bridesmaids bring extra oil, so that they have oil for their lamps when the bridegroom finally arrives. Second, the wise bridesmaids are where they are supposed to be when the bridegroom comes. The foolish bridesmaids panic and run off to find more oil, so that they are not present when the bridegroom enters into the party and they are, thus, locked out. I can’t help but wonder which of these two failures causes them to be characterized as the foolish bridesmaids? I also can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the foolish bridesmaids simply continued to wait, with sputtering lamps and dwindling lights? What would have happened if the bridesmaids simply waited in the darkness of the night? It is these questions that make me think that this parable is so much more than an endorsement of the Boy Scout’s motto: Always be prepared! It is an acknowledgement of the reality of waiting in our lives and in our world and it teaches us that how we wait is also integral in how and when we encounter Jesus and the kingdom of God. So the question today is not just what are you waiting for? But also, how do you wait? Do you try to fill the time with other inconsequential things? Do you fret and obsess about what you are waiting for? I had an epiphany about how I was waiting when I was in my early 20’s. I was just out of college, working at Stewpot in Jackson and living in my parents’ home in Canton so I could save money for when I got to go to seminary. I was in the backseat of my college friend’s car and we were driving back from spending New Year’s Eve in New Orleans at another friend’s family home. As we drove back home, I was feeling sad because our holiday was coming to an end, because I was headed back to the real world, where I had a job but very few friends or social connections and because I had just recently learned that I would not be going to seminary the next fall as I had hoped. I was looking out the window at Lake Pontchartrain as we sped over it, and I realized all of a sudden that I was living as if my life were on hold. I was missing the opportunity to live a full life because I was so focused on waiting to go to seminary, and I was living a sort of shadowed, hollowed-out life. I was not fully engage with the rich work I was doing, with the community I was serving. I vowed to change the way I was waiting, and when I returned home, I began looking for a roommate and an apartment in Jackson. Those ended up being three very fruitful years in my life, and I am thankful that God invited me to change the way that I was waiting. So three questions for you today. 1. What are you waiting for? 2. How are you waiting? 3. How might God be inviting you to change the way that you are waiting?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

So, what do you want to be anyway? Sermon for The Sunday after All Saints

The Sunday after All Saints November 2, 2014 I don’t usually title my sermons, but today is a special day, this Sunday after All Saints—one of the 7 major feasts days in our Episcopal Church calendar. Today, you actually get a title: “So, what do you want to be, anyway?” I want to share with you a story. It is written by Thomas Merton in his book The Seven Story Mountain, and interestingly enough, while not considered to be a saint in his own Roman Catholic tradition, Merton is commemorated in our new calendar for lesser feasts called Holy Women Holy Men. We remember Thomas Merton as a saint on December 10th. Merton writes, I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question: “What do you want to be, anyway?” I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said: “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?” The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all. Lax did not accept it. “What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax simply. “I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.” So, what do you want to be, anyway? On this Sunday after All Saints, we have a relatively new tradition that we uphold. (It’s now a tradition because we did it this way last year…) After the homily today, you will be invited to come forward, if you desire, to light a candle. While you light this candle, I ask that you remember by name, either silently before God or as a whisper, the people who have been the saints in your life—all those who have come before you in the faith, those who showed us how to walk the way of Jesus in deliberately giving up our sins and attachments. As we do this, we will quietly sing many peoples’ favorite All Saints’ song—I sing a song of the saints of God(293), and we are mindful that at the end of each stanza, each of us will proclaim our intent that “I mean to be one too.” So let’s just say that’s what we want: we want to be a saint. How on earth do we do that? What does it mean or look like to follow what Merton says that in being a saint, we must live our lives in a way that means we are intentionally trying to give up our sins and attachments? The life of a saint is actually a life of paradox. That’s what Jesus is hinting at in the gospel reading for today as we listen to the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Did you know that the word that is translated as “blessed” can also be translated as happy? “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted….” The life of faith that Jesus proclaims is a paradox. And here’s the thing about paradox. Truly giving up our sins and attachments doesn’t happen when we try harder, (much to the dismay of this first-born, over-achiever who secretly believes anything can be attained if I just work a little harder—even sainthood). The life of the saint is actually achieved in and through surrender to God. Only then do we relinquish our sins and our attachments. So, how do we do that? How do we more fully live into that paradox? This past week, a friend told me about a sociological study that she had encountered. The report of the study is called The Paradox of Generosity. I didn’t have time to read the results of the whole study, but I did read the executive summary which hits the high points. This book is interesting because it looks at the science of generosity. It is written about the findings of a national study of two thousand Americans in 2010. The researchers examining the data then analyzed it through four-hour interview sessions with forty carefully chosen households. The book begins by defining generosity as “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” They continue that generosity is “a learned trait that involves attitudes and actions…[and ] is ultimately an expression of love.” I was struck by that because it is the overwhelming impression that I have of the lives of all those I consider to be saints—this attitude of giving generously as an expression of love. The study uses five measures of well-being to answer the main question: Is greater generosity, measured in various ways, positively associated with well-being? The five measures of well-being are happiness, bodily health, purpose in living, avoidance of depression, and interest in personal growth. The study also looks at various areas for generosity: voluntary financial giving, volunteering, relational generosity, and neighborly generosity. The study found that those who would self-identify as very happy people are also people who are very generous (according to the criteria set by the study); the study pointed out that the happiest people are those who give away 10% of their income; and conversely those who consider themselves to be somewhat or very unhappy do not have regular practices of generosity. It’s an interesting study and you can read much more about it and the findings, but in the essence of time, I’m going to share with you one of the concluding paragraphs: “‘The message of this book is simple, but we think also profound and important. Generosity is paradoxical. Those who give their resources away, receive back in turn. In offering our time, money, and energy in service of others’ well-being, we enhance our own being as well.’ This paradox, wisdom of the ages [which echoes much of Jesus’s essential teachings—in giving away our lives, we find them…], is now supported by quantitative and qualitative evidence. Practicing generosity leads to a general sense of well-being, while a tight grip on things and resources diminishes this sense of well-being.” So, what do you want to be, anyway? The beginning step on the journey toward living into your calling as the saints of God is a close as walking forward and giving thanks for those who have been shining lights of generosity in your own lives and in this world. It is as close as filling out a pledge card today for the first time or increasing your giving just enough so that you feel it. So what do you want to be, anyway? May God give us each the courage to live into the beloved words that we sing this day: “I sing a song of the saints of God….and I mean to be one too.”