Saturday, September 19, 2015

17th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 20B

17th Sunday after Pentecost-Proper 20B September 20, 2015 This past Wednesday night, as I was leaving church with the kids, I realized that I was very low on gas. I made a mental note to stop at Kroger on the way home, and then I realized over half way down Hoy Road that I had completely zoned out and forgotten to stop. (It had been a long day!). So I ran the kids home and drove back to Kroger (around 7:30 pm). When I got to Kroger, all the pumps had people at them, and there were more people waiting. I got more and more frustrated as I watched people maneuver and cut in front of others to get to the open pumps, and so finally, I went to one of the pumps on the back of the lot and pulled up behind a woman to wait until she was done. As I waited with my window rolled down to enjoy the beautiful night, I watched this woman be completely engrossed in her cell phone as she pumped her gas. The truck in front of her left, and she was still pumping, but I couldn’t get around her car to get to the open pump. So I waited. Finally, the woman’s gas was finished, and she slowly close up her gas tank, never taking her eyes off her phone screen. I waited a couple of more minutes as she stood there looking at her phone and she realized that she had to push the button if she wanted a receipt. (“Please, don’t want a receipt,” I said to myself, but alas it was not to be.) She continued to be consumed with what was on her phone as her receipt printed, and she slowly pulled it and made her way into her car, maneuvering herself into the driver’s seat while not taking her eyes off her phone. (At last, I thought, I will get my gas and get home to eat supper and put my children to bed! I put my car into drive with eager anticipation.) But it was still not to be. The woman turned on her car, and sat there looking at her phone. At this point, my curiosity about this woman and her obsession with her phone had turned into acute irritation. But what to do? I didn’t want to be rude (because I had just talked at church about how I try not to drive like a jerk because I have a St. Columb’s sticker on my van), but this woman had been obliviously blocking two pumps for a while now, and I didn’t want to wait any longer. So I hung my head out my open window and yelled nicely, “Would you please pull your car forward?” I got nothing except curious and startled glances from the people at the other pumps. (Who is this crazy woman in the van trying to talk to other people at the gas pump?!) So finally, I just couldn’t stand it any longer, and I did it. I honked my horn. And what do you think happened? The woman jumped-startled when I honked, and then she put her phone down so that she could have both hands free to make rude gestures at me with in her rear view mirror. Then, FINALLY, she drove off. Well, I was livid! How dare she make rude gestures at me when she had been so self-absorbed that she had been blocking not just one but two pumps while a bunch of other people waited?! I pulled down the row to the first open pump and the gas attendant was walking over to empty the trash can. I said to her, full of my righteous anger, “did you see that woman blocking two pumps while she was on her phone?!” and the gas attendant said to me tiredly with her bag full of trash, “Honey, they all be like that. Every day.” And Jesus said to the disciples as they were arguing over who is the greatest, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” As I stood there in my collar and pumped my gas, I thought about the gas attendant, what she said, what her life must be like having to deal with that level of self-absorption day in and day out. And I realized that, even though she didn’t mean it this way, when she said “They all be like that. Every day.” Her “they” also meant me. And I knew, in that woman I had encountered Jesus, and I was simultaneously chastened and hopeful that I could be better. Because that’s really what is at the heart of the disciples’ argument in today’s gospel. Jesus has, for the second out of three times in Mark, taken himself and his disciples away from the crowds so that he can tell them about his impending death and try to help prepare them for when he’s gone. But they just can’t get it. We see they are so confused and afraid that they cannot even formulate questions for him about what he is trying to teach him. So they try to fill that void of confusion and fear by arguing over who is greatest. Instead of the self-sacrifice and service and courage that Jesus is trying to teach them about, they become fearful, close-minded, and self-absorbed. So Jesus sits down with them (which is the posture that Rabbis would take when teaching), and he tells them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he brings in a child, the lowest of the low in that society, and tells them this is what they must be: vulnerable, powerless, and dependent. I’ve been reading Brene’ Brown’s new book Rising Strong. Brown is a sociologist who is also an Episcopalian, and she has interviewed thousands of people about the human condition and their own life experiences. She studies the concepts of shame and failure, and she has determined that vulnerability is the key characteristic that fosters and nourishes whole-hearted living and human relationships. In her new book that I am reading, Brown writes about the importance of examining our own failures and asking important questions to help us learn from them and also to recast and reclaim those stories for ourselves. Which led me to ask some questions about my encounter at the Kroger gas pumps the other night. Why did I get so angry at the woman on her phone? (Because her self-absorption suggested that she thought her time was more valuable and important than mine.) What could I have done differently so that I would have felt like that encounter was a failure and to not be one of the “theys” in the gas attendant’s life? (Maybe I could have gotten out of my car and gone and knocked on her window and kindly and politely asked her to move instead of honking?) I read a blog post from the spiritual writer Parker Palmer this week, and he quoted a passage from Rainier Maria Rilke (Reiner Maria Reelkay) — from Letters to a Young Poet, that has caught my attention and made me think about the kind of questions that I ask. "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer." We are so like the disciples; when we are afraid or angry or confused, we don’t ask the right questions. We spend our time arguing about the wrong things, things rooted in our insecurity and self-absorption. But Jesus teaches us that the way of discipleship is the way of the cross. It is a way of courage, self-sacrifice, and service. So then let us be courageous. Let us we pay attention to what is really going on in our hearts. Let us try to live generously with ourselves and one another, and let us try to ask the better questions.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

15th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 18B

15th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18B September 6, 2015 I ran across an article this week about the government of Iceland’s response to the Syrian refugee crises—not stuff I usually encounter or read about. This article (on was saying that the government of Iceland, which has a population of only about 315,000, said they could help in the crises by offering to take 50 Syrian refugees. The article pointed out that “as far as offers of help go, it didn’t come off as particularly heartfelt or overwhelming.” But then, a local, Icelandic author started a Facebook page named “Syria is Calling” where everyday Icelanders stepped up to try to fill the humanitarian need. Over 12,000 people weighed in, calling on their government to do more, and many of those who wrote, offered both their homes and their financial support. The comments in the article were profound, many people offering to open their homes to Syrians in need, especially children, offering from their skills as teachers, cooks, and just basic knowledge of how to get around in their community. Many others offered their financial resources, offering to buy plane tickets for the Syrians to travel to Iceland. I got kind of teary reading all these comments of people humbly offering their talents and time and money and the sanctuary of their own homes to help strangers in need half a world away! But then, the more I thought about it, it made me more and more uncomfortable. I don’t think I could offer that, to open my home, even though I have more than enough room, to a stranger from half a world away. And the time that they were offering, too, it was terrifying! I don’t have that much time to give away to someone else. I feel like I scarcely have enough for myself and my family. And then I started wondering, in my discomfort, if that is who I am called to be, the kind of thing that I am called to do as a follower of Jesus Christ… I was still thinking about all of that, as I started reflecting on the gospel reading for this week, and talk about uncomfortable… I’ll just go ahead and tell you, Jesus calling that woman (and her sick child, by association) a “dog” really makes me uncomfortable. I mean it’s one thing if we do something like that, but really, we expect more from Jesus! And come to think of it, I really don’t care for the Jesus of Mark’s gospel. Every time I read through that whole gospel, I am struck by how harsh Mark’s Jesus is, how he has little sympathy or patience for just about everybody except the sick people he heals. But I think that’s a key part of Mark’s Jesus and Mark’s gospel. The Jesus that Mark gives us is laser-focused on his mission, and he has little patience with those who can’t get with that program, including his own disciples. Which brings us back to the gospel reading. Jesus has just experienced a taxing encounter with the Scribes and the Pharisees. He is basically “hiding out” trying to get a little rest and recharging, and he doesn’t want anyone to know that he is there. But this woman finds him, and she is not a part of Jesus’s mission. She is a Gentile, and Jesus is very clear that his mission is to the Jews. And I am intrigued by how the woman responds to him, both courageously and humbly, and through her response, Jesus appears to experience a transformation in his understanding of his mission, to include people who aren’t Jews. We are doing two different things here today that relate to this. First, we are celebrating Labor Day and our stewardship of our time, and our work, our energy and our leisure, by bringing forward a symbol of all of that to offer to God by laying it on (or at the foot of) God’s altar. We do this today to be thankful for all that God has given us and to help us to remember, both today and out in the world in our everyday lives, that all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, and that God entrusts that, our time, our energy, our creativity to our care to oversee and use for God’s purposes. That’s really our own, individual missions in the world; (remembering that mission essentially means being sent out). To take what God has given us and to use it in our lives and in the world to bring about God’s purpose which is the reconciliation of all people to God. The second thing that we are doing here today is to begin a parish-wide conversation on mission: what is God’s mission for us here at St. Columb’s? How is God calling us out beyond our four walls as individuals and as a people to offer our gifts and God’s good news through the person of Jesus Christ to others? One of the things that I have learned in my 11 years of ordained ministry (that I didn’t really learn in seminary) is that it is mine and the church’s essential work to nourish and equip each one of you to be apostles of Jesus Christ in your own particular situations. We do that through worship together, through fellowship, through food, through formation. We do that in a variety of ways, but it is important for us always to remember in those things that we are each being formed and supported to be apostles in our own lives; apostles in the world. That is the mission of all the baptized. So over the coming weeks, you will notice three boards in the narthex and in the parish hall with three different questions on them. I will also be visiting most of the small groups in the parish and hearing your answers to those questions, because I think they are essential to uncover how we understand our mission as the people of God and what we need to do to better equip you for that mission. Be thinking about the questions. They are 1. Tell me about a time when you experienced a sense of community at St. Columb’s. 2. Tell me about a time when St. Columb’s was at its best representing Christ. What made that possible? 3. An apostle is someone who is sent forth. What about your experience at St. Columb’s has prepared you to be an apostle in the world today? (What do you feel might be lacking?) As you think about your answers to these questions, do not forget the symbol of what you are laying on the altar today; for that is a representation of the gifts that you bring to God, to this church, and to the world, and can, will and should be an essential part of your mission in the world. Last night, one of my seminary classmates had shared a pastoral letter from his bishop, The Bishop of Long Island, about the Syrian Crises and the Presiding Bishop’s call to recognize today and to remember that we are called to participate in "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism.” I was struck by some of the words the bishop of Long Island wrote in this letter regarding the mission of the church, and so I will share those with you in closing: “If we are horrified by the sight of refugee children drowning in an attempt to find freedom, if we are concerned enough to take racial reconciliation seriously as a church body, then let us undertake some tangible effort to alleviate the suffering of God's people at our gates. Let us fight the good fight to build bridges for the strangers in our midst, not walls. Let us put our resources and time and energy into addressing the obligation from the Gospel of Jesus Christ to care for people, all people, and particularly those in the most profound need.”