Why Are We Here?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma on July 21, 2013
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year C)

I don’t know about you, but it’s very easy for me to procrastinate and be distracted by  any number of tasks – especially when I have something really important to do that’s difficult to define and harder still to accomplish.  Now the activities I may busy myself with are, in fact good and even important and necessary – but they’re a distraction from what I truly need to do at that time.  You know, it’s just so much more satisfying when I know what to do, how to do it, and I can tell that it’s finished and it’s done well.  And everyone else can see it, too.

Mary and Martha are both attending to the requirements of hospitality; Martha is attending to providing food for their guest while Mary attends to the guest himself.  She is giving him her presence, her attention.  Both are necessary and I’m sure Jesus will enjoy the meal Martha is busy preparing, but to many eyes, it appears that Mary is a slacker. 

The church can get distracted, too.  We can be very busy doing good, important, NECESSARY activities – often because they’re easily identified, described, measured, and completed.  They can be checked off the to-do list and we can all feel successful.  However, when we focus ALL of our attention and energy on those needed activities, do we ever ask ourselves how they relate to our core purpose?  Do we even check to make sure that we’re focusing ANY of our energy and attention on that core purpose?

Paul writes about the purpose of the church in his letter to the Colossians.  After singing this magnificent him about the glory of Christ – through whom and for whom absolutely everything was created and through whom absolutely everything has been reconciled to God – he brings it down to the local congregation.  He says even you, this one little congregation, are the Body of Christ.  Christ is in you. He has made you holy and blameless before God.  And you have one purpose: to Proclaim Jesus Christ.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it?  How do we proclaim Jesus Christ?  What does that even mean?  Who IS Christ to us?  How can we even know if we’ve succeeded?  It’s so much easier to hold a potluck, or clean out closets, or focus on the budget – all of which are good and important and necessary and MAY be used to further our core purpose or may be used to procrastinate.

In his book, Youth in the Community of Disciples, David Ng addresses this very topic.  He reminds us of our essential identity and our central task when he enumerates the many purposes that distract us from our core purpose.  These include:

  • Entertainment, where worship leaders put on a show and everyone has fun
  • Refuge – a sort of life raft in the sea of brokenness and evil that will keep us safe until Christ comes again.  Here the goal is to keep everyone comfortable.
  • Fellowship – forming and maintaining social relationships; everyone feels they “belong”.  Of course this is important, but it’s not the core purpose.

No, the core purpose is to proclaim Christ.

  • We talked about the core purpose of the church at the College for Congregational Development, too. There we described the purpose as:

  • To Gather the People of God as the Body of Christ,
  • To Transform us, and then
  • To Send us into the world as Transformative Agents for the Commonwealth of God.

It can be tempting to focus on the Gather part rather than on the Transform part and especially on the Transformative Agents part.  After all, we can count how many people have Gathered and we can tell if there are new folks.  But how do we transform lives?  And how do we know if what we’re doing is working?

For that matter, Who are the new people?  Are we Proclaiming Christ to those who don’t yet know Christ?  Recently, I read a blog post titled,

“9 Signs Your Church Is Ready to Reach Unchurched People.”  I’d like to share a few of them.

Your main services engage teenagers.  The writer contends that if your Sunday morning service is boring, irrelevant, and disengaging to the teenagers in your church, it probably will be to unchurched people as well.

  • Your members know unchurched people.  It’s important to have relationships outside of church – people you know well enough that you would feel comfortable inviting them to church.
  • Your members are prepared to be non-judgmental.  Nuf said.
  • You’re good with their questions and don’t feel the need to answer them.  You’re comfortable letting them find their own answers.
  • You’re honest about your own struggles.  We’re not perfect, so let’s be honest about it; it opens a lot of doors, surprisingly.

I’ll stop there.  If you’re interested you can read the rest of the post yourself.

What do you think?  I know several of them made me pause.  They remind us that it’s not all about us.  They remind us that our purpose is to Proclaim Christ.

So, How do we proclaim Christ?

We Proclaim Christ when, like Martha, we feed hungry people.  We Proclaim Christ when, like Mary, we attend and listen.  We Proclaim Christ when we share our stories, telling how Christ has transformed our lives.

That’s why we’re here – to be transformed so that we may be the Body of Christ in the world; agents of transformation for the Commonwealth of God.

Let’s not be distracted, we’re here to proclaim Jesus Christ.

Go. Raise the Dead.

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma on June 16, 2013
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year C)

Go, Raise the dead.

You can imagine that I sat up and paid attention when I heard Sara Miles say this to us at our annual clergy conference a few years ago.  That’s what we are called to do, she challenged us – as Christians, as church, as community – to Raise the Dead.  Notice she didn’t pick the “easy” things that Jesus calls us to.  You know the ones that are hard enough but seem at least doable – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, free the captive (well, visit them anyway) or even Go to all the nations and make disciples.  No she focused on the most challenging in the list:  Raise the dead.

The title of the conference was “All are Welcome: Glorifying the Stranger and Building Community.”  She and Paul Fromberg came from Saint Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco to talk to us about being a truly welcoming community through liturgy and service; one that welcomes all, especially the Stranger, the Other.  In doing so, we grow; our world is enlarged and enriched; we hear the gospel a little more fully.  We are, in a sense, raised from the dead.  Our lives are transformed and we are made a new people.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Now, you may be thinking that I must have read the wrong lessons for today.  I mean, last week, was all about raising the dead.  This week is about the woman who was a sinner.  Oh, and Simon of course.

Which one of them do you think this story is really about?  The woman or Simon?  I suppose it depends on where you find yourself in the story.

The woman comes to Simon’s house, not by chance, but by plan.  It would seem, from the parable Jesus tells, that this is not her first encounter with Jesus.  Her sins which were many were already forgiven.  She comes to Simon’s house because she knows Jesus will be there.  She has prepared her ointment in an alabaster jar.  She comes with purpose.  I don’t imagine she intends to make a spectacle of herself, embarrassing absolutely everyone in the room – except Jesus, perhaps.  But when she is actually in his presence again, she is overcome.  She can’t help herself.  Her tears are tears of love and gratitude.  She has been raised from the dead and given new life.

Simon, on the other hand, has set himself up as judge over her – how dare she come into his house and behave so shamefully?  He is a righteous man and this is a respectable house.  Yet he has not offered Jesus even the minimum that courtesy demands: water for his feet and a kiss of welcome.

This story reminds me of the movie, The Sixth Sense, that came out quite some time ago.  The little boy in the movie sees dead people – except they don’t know they’re dead.  They go about their “lives” so to speak, oblivious to the fact that they aren’t actually interacting with the living world.  They don’t know that the living can’t see them or hear them.  They can’t feel their touch.  While the boy can see them trying to live, no one else can.  And they can’t see the truth of their death.

Simon doesn’t realize that he’s dead; that he, too, needs the new life God has to offer through Jesus.  After all, he is a righteous man, a good man and he has a good life.  He has the respect of the community.  The woman was fully aware that she was dead and that now she is alive, transformed.  And so she comes to Jesus in love and gratitude for the life she has received.

Now where do you find yourself in the story?  Are you like Simon, the righteous man? Or like the woman who was a sinner, who was dead and has been raised to new life?  Maybe you find yourself with the other guests at the party watching the scene unfold.  Or maybe you’re walking by on the street outside the house.

Or could you see yourself in Jesus – bringing new life, raising the dead?

Now, let’s go back to Sara’s challenge to us – that we are called to go raise the dead.  Who are the dead around us – in our community, our neighbors?  Who are the dead among us – sitting in the pews with us?  How will we recognize them?

For that matter, what may be dead within us and how will we recognize it?  And then, what will we do about it?

What if we, the people of Christ Church Parish in Tacoma, were to embrace that mission, To Raise the Dead?  What if we were to understand that mission as the reason for our very existence?  That God has put us here to raise the dead in this neighborhood, right now.  Imagine the life and energy it could bring to our neighbors.  Imagine the transformation – not only around us, but more especially in us.

A colleague shared this quote with me.  Listen to what Fr. Richard Rohr has to say about our gospel reading:

Those at the edge of any system and those excluded from any system ironically and invariably hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. They always hold the feared, rejected, and denied parts of the group’s soul. You see, therefore, why the church was meant to be that group that constantly went to the edges, to the “least of the brothers and sisters,” and even to the enemy. Jesus was not just a theological genius, but he was also a psychological and sociological genius. 

When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be the Christ. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God. 

Only as the People of God receive the stranger, the sinner, and the immigrant, those who don’t play our game our way, do we discover not only the hidden, feared, and hated parts of our own souls, but the fullness of Jesus himself. We need them for our own conversion. 

The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited back into the temple. You see this in Jesus’ commonly sending marginalized people that he has healed back into the village, back to their family, or back to the temple to “show themselves to the priests.” It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance, but actually for the group itself to be renewed.

This is the season of Pentecost, the season of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to do what Jesus calls us to do.

Let’s go.

Let’s raise the dead.

Jesus Sightings

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma on April 14, 2013
The third Sunday of Easter (Year C)

Jesus sightings.  That seems to be the theme of the gospel readings in the Easter season – Jesus sightings; encounters with the risen Christ.  But have you ever noticed that in most of these “Jesus sightings” not even his closest friends recognize him; at least not at first?

Now these Jesus sightings are not like celebrity sightings in Hollywood or even at the mall.  Not like saying, “Was that Bill Gates?” or “I saw Apollo Ohno buying candy at the concession stand last night!”  It’s not even like not recognizing your high school sweetheart at your 30-year reunion.  No, it’s more like not recognizing your best friend that you had lunch with just a few days ago.

Remember these stories?

Mary Magdalene, weeping at the entrance of the tomb on that first Easter morning thinks that Jesus is the gardener.

Along the road to Emmaus, the Disciples wonder at this “stranger” walking with them, who doesn’t even know the news that EVERYBODY in Jerusalem is talking about.  And yet this stranger knows all about its meaning.  They spend the whole day in deep discussion with him, but don’t recognize him until he breaks bread at dinner.

In the story we heard last Sunday, Thomas doesn’t recognize Jesus until he touches his wounds.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are out fishing and when Jesus calls to them from the shore, at first they don’t know him, but they do as he says.  Then, when the beloved disciple says, “It’s the Lord!” Peter, in true Peter fashion, jumps in the water and swims to shore.  But even on the beach, it says that they were afraid to ask “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.

Now why would it say that?  It’s the third time they’ve seen Jesus since he was raised and they spent years traveling with him in his ministry.  Of COURSE they would know him, but for some reason that wasn’t assumed by our gospel-writer.
And then, of course there’s Saul.  Ironically, Saul doesn’t recognize Jesus until he’s blinded.

Is it any wonder that we have such a hard time “seeing” Jesus when even those who knew him intimately couldn’t recognize him?  And yet, it is our deep desire to see Jesus.  We pray it, we sing it.  It is even in our baptismal vows.

In fact, isn’t that what resurrection is all about – seeing Jesus?  Listen to what Clarence Jordan (a noted New Testament scholar and the inspiration for the Habitat for Humanity organization) has to say about resurrection.  He writes:

The resurrection of Jesus was simply God’s unwillingness to take our ‘no’ for an answer. He raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.

I want you to think about that.  I’ll read it again.

Maybe that’s a clue as to where we should look for Jesus.  Remember how the angels ask those who come to the tomb, “Why are you looking for him here among the dead?  He is alive.”  They’re looking in the wrong place.  And even when he appears, he’s not what they expect and so they don’t recognize him.  So, where do we look for Jesus?  And how do we recognize him?

Now the church teaches us to look for him in our worship; that Jesus is present in the proclamation of the Gospel – that’s why we stand.  That Jesus is present in the bread and wine of communion.  That Jesus is present in the body gathered – all of you.  We recognize Jesus, not with the eyes and ears of our brain, but with the eyes and ears of our heart; the eyes and ears of our soul.

So let’s start there.  When you greet each other at the Peace, take the time to reverently listen for Jesus with the ears of your heart, to see Jesus with the eyes of your soul.  See if you encounter Jesus as you receive the bread in your hand, the wine in your mouth, as you receive Jesus into your body and soul.

Of course Jesus is not confined within these walls.  Clarence Jordan said, “Jesus has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers[and sisters] with him.”  Jesus will be found among the least, the lost, the rejects of society.  Maybe we miss seeing Jesus because we look away too quickly.  We look in the wrong places.  He isn’t the way we expect him to be.

In our baptism, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons;  All Persons.   Maybe we miss seeing Jesus because we don’t expect to find him in certain people, or maybe even in most people.  And so we only see them with the eyes of our brain.

Now, I want you to listen carefully, because this is important.

Remember that just as you seek Christ in others, others find Christ in you.

Just as you seek Christ in others, others find Christ in you.

Hold that awareness gently with love, with care, with reverence.
For it is truly Holy.

Telling Your Resurrection Story

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma on March 30, 2013
The Great Vigil of Easter

This is it.  Tonight’s the night – the climax of the Christian year.  It’s the night when we remember and celebrate the defining event for Christians everywhere: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Empty Tomb.  We come together to celebrate, to remember, and to tell the story.  But we don’t just tell the story of the women arriving at the empty tomb and hearing the angel tell them he is risen.  No, we tell a bunch of stories – a sampling from a long history of stories of salvation that led up to this one.

What sets Literature apart from other writing is that it speaks Truth about Life, about the World, about the human experience, about what it is to be human.  HOLY Literature (or Holy Scripture) speaks Truth about all those things, too, but also about God and the connection between God and everything else.  We keep telling these stories, not because they were true about a group of people 2,000 years ago, or 4,000 years ago or even millions of years ago, but because they ARE True, even today, even in our own lives.  These stories speak of Truths like:

  • The Goodness of Creation
  • God’s presence and even deliverance in dire circumstances, when it seems impossible
  • God’s Providence of an abundance of good things and the invitation to choose them
  • The abundance of God’s Pardon
  • Hearts of flesh, not of stone, and God’s law written on hearts.
  • God’s gracious, generous forgiveness, healing, salvation, and restoration.

These are Truths we find in the Holy Stories – in Holy Scripture; Truths we find in our lives and in our hearts.

And then we come to Luke’s gospel and the story of the empty tomb.  The women arrive distraught, ready to do what they know to do.  But their world will be turned upside down.  Nothing is as they expected.  The angel tells them they’re looking in the wrong place, that he is risen. He’s gone!  Their story is unbelievable and they are not believed.  Peter at least goes to check it out.  He finds the tomb just as the women had said it was, but he doesn’t go back and confirm it to the others.  NO, he goes home in amazement (and possibly some fear).

Jesus is risen – Resurrected!  This is not a story of resuscitation or revival.  It’s not like the hospital shows where someone dies and they get out the paddles, shout, “Clear!” and they’re brought back to life, “good as new” – just watch what you eat, exercise, and by the way, here’s a handful of prescriptions to get filled.  NO – this was not a return to life as before, but Resurrection into a NEW KIND of life.  That’s the Promise; a Resurrection Life.

I recently worked a Kairos Weekend  at the prison over at Purdy.  I was part of a team that spent four days with about 35 women.  There were talks and testimony, prayer and singing, and plenty of time for quiet reflections and for sharing among “table families.”  One of the interesting things is that many of the women have known each other on the street or from previous trips through our penal system.  They know about one anothers’ past lives.  And it’s always interesting, along about the third day, when one will point out how another one has changed, like it’s a different life.  Now part of the change is the choice made by the individual.  But I believe it is largely because God has made it possible, offering deliverance, freedom – salvation – even within the walls of a prison.
It is Resurrection.

A couple years ago, a new play came out, called “How to Write a New Book for the Bible”written by a Jesuit priest named Bill Cain.  His central premise is that the Bible is about people and families – the stories of their lives and their lives in relation with God.  And so he goes about telling the story of HIS family, interspersed with the stories of biblical families.  In the telling, we see that the Truth we find in Holy Scripture is the same Truth we find in the lives of our own families – and it’s not only the good stuff; it’s the hard stuff, the sinful stuff, the embarrassing stuff too.  Change the incidentals – the characters, the time, the place, the details – but the central Truth of the Holy Stories remains; even in our own stories.

If you were to write your family’s book for your Family Bible, what stories would you tell?  Where do you find God in the tapestry of your lives?

Tonight, we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus not simply because of something that happened so long ago, but because of the promise it holds out to us; because of the Hope it offers.

What is the Resurrection YOU hope for?
What is the Resurrection you LONG for?

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Promise and Hope of Resurrection are ours.
Thanks be to God!

Treasures of Christmas

Preached at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Issaquah
on January 6th, 2013    The Feast of the Epiphany (Year C)

Of all the Treasures of the Christmas season, I particularly treasure the Spirit of Generosity and the Generosity of Spirit that it inspires in people.  The very heart of Christmas is giving and receiving tangible gifts.  They serve as signs of our relationships; of our affection and love for the recipient.  You might even call them embodied love.

We begin the season on Christmas Day, remembering the first Christmas gift: God’s gift to us in Jesus – a tangible, embodied gift of God’s love, all wrapped up in a person like us.

Then we can’t WAIT to get into the act and respond, giving our own gifts of love to our loved ones.  We may have started planning and preparing days, weeks, maybe even months earlier – choosing gifts that express our love, that capture our relationship, that make someone’s dream come true, that makes their face light up.  And oh, what joy it gives us.

Now, I know a lot of people complain about how commercialized Christmas has become and many will say that it’s all based on greed.  But I disagree.  I think the commercialism only works because of humanity’s inherent Generosity.  Even people who aren’t church-goers or believers or anything get caught up in the spirit of giving, the Spirit of Generosity.  But we find that giving gifts to our family and close friends isn’t enough.  The Spirit of Generosity grows and expands in us and we are moved to give presents to people that we don’t even know; people we will never see.

Often that Spirit of Generosity expands even further until it becomes a Generosity of Spirit as we give not only tangible gifts – things – but we give our love, our prayers,  our very selves; serving others in a whole host of different ways.  It is this Generosity of Spirit that brings us together for so many holiday parties and get-togethers; the desire to spend time together and share our lives.

Twelve days later – today – we finish the season of Christmas celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany.  This is the day when the magi from the East finally arrive in Bethlehem to greet the newborn king of the Jews.  And they come bearing Treasure.  It may very well be that our tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from this story.  In many cultures, THIS is the day that gifts are exchanged, not December 25th.

Today is the day we remember and celebrate that the Treasure of Incarnate Love that God gives us in Jesus is for the whole world.  You see, right from the very beginning, Jesus was made known to the magi who were outsiders, the gentiles.  And so, it is fitting that on this day, we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  In just a few moments, we will baptize (names), incorporating them into the Body of Christ and welcoming them into this Community of Faith.

Baptism is, in many ways, about giving.  In baptism, we recall the gift of grace God gives us through Jesus Christ.  In baptism, Parents give their children into the community, dedicating their lives to Christ.  And we give our lives over to Christ once again.  As their parents and godparents make promises on behalf of the children, we will renew our own baptismal promises.  And we will vow to support the children, their parents,  and one another in our lives in Christ.

It is this Spirit of Generosity and  Generosity of Spirit that are at the very heart of Christian living; from offering hospitality to working for justice to loving our neighbor to sharing the Good News by sharing our own stories.  They give us joy and love and life in abundance bubbling up from within us, like the laughter of a child on Christmas morning.

So, as you go forth from here on this baptismal day, on this Feast of the Epiphany, may you always carry the Treasures of Christmas in your heart:
The Spirit of Generosity and a Generosity of Spirit.

It’s Just Too Awful

Preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way on December 16, 2012.
Advent 3 (Year C)

It’s just too awful, isn’t it?  Too awful to talk about; too awful even to think about.  But too awful to avoid.  I was chatting with my daughter online, Friday morning, scrolling through my email when “Breaking News” from the Seattle Times caught my eye.  I clicked and learned about the shooting at the elementary school in Connecticut.  It was like someone sat on my chest – you know the feeling, I’m sure – that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach.  My heart broke as I looked at the pictures of children, walking in a line, eyes closed to the horror around them, each holding onto the shoulders of the child in front of them as they were led to safety.  Even the survivors are victims.  They will never “get over” what happened that day at school.

And this happened right on the heels of the shooting at the shopping mall outside of Portland.  Which came right on the heels of the shootings in the U District last week.  And the nightly reports of violence in Syria, and Israel, and Afghanistan, and the list goes on and on. 

A couple of years ago, I saw the play, “Equivocation,” with a group of young adults. In our discussion, afterward, I asked them, “What does it mean to be human in inhumane times?” a central theme of the play.  One young woman responded, “When has there ever been a time that wasn’t inhumane?”  She has a point.

All we have to do is look around us.  We humans have a long history of inhumanity.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the question.  In fact, it probably means it’s even more important that we ask it and keep asking it and do our absolute best to answer it and then live the answer.

In today’s gospel, we hear John the Baptist preaching to a people living under oppressive occupation by the Romans.  Some of their neighbors even participate in the oppression.  He’s talking to tax collectors and soldiers, religious leaders and regular folks.  These are people who have direct experience with inhumanity; with the awfulness.  They are caught up in a system of inhumanity.  It’s not simply a matter of individual people making isolated, sinful choices;  They are all caught up in sinful systems.  And it’s not so very different from our world today.

The same was true of the people in Zephaniah’s day.  He prophesied at a time in history between the time when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel sending the people all over their empire, and the time when Babylon conquered the southern kingdom and took the people into exile.  In the rest of the book we hear him railing against pretty much everyone and telling them that the Day of the Lord is coming and only a few will be saved; a faithful remnant.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Do you ever feel that you are caught up in systems that you know are harmful but that you can’t avoid?  We DO live in inhumane times.  Awful stuff happens all the time.

So what does it mean to be human in times such as these?  One thing that reassures me that we have not lost our humanity; that there is indeed reason for hope is that we are shocked and outraged by awful events.  Our compassion is stirred.  Our hearts and prayers go out to those in pain and we reach out to help however we can.

Perhaps this is what it means to be human in inhumane times.  To continue to be shocked and outraged at the inhumanity, the evil around us.  To reach out in compassion to those who suffer and to do what we can to alleviate that suffering.  To work to dismantle the systems that create the situations that cause suffering by standing up to power to say “This. Must. Stop.”  To cry out to God.

And, To repent.  In the Confession of Sin in Enriching Our Worship,
“we repent of the evil that enslaves us;
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.”

John the Baptist tells the crowds that come out to the desert, that it is not enough to flee in fear of the wrath to come.  They must instead “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” or as it says in the New Jerusalem translation, “produce the fruit of repentance.”

So, I guess a companion to our question about what it means to be human, would be, “What does it mean to repent?  What does it mean to produce the fruit of repentance?”
In her book, The Way of Repentance, Irma Zaleski writes,

True repentance is not an expression of fear, self-hate or of a neurotic sense of guilt, but an ordinary, simple, natural way of loving God.  It is a meeting with God, who has loved us infinitely, whom we love,… from whom we are separated by sin.  True repentance, holy repentance, is the way of love.  It is only possible when we stand before the face of God and are moved “out of our minds,” beyond the confines of our little narrow selves, by our longing for [God].

So, we might say that repentance means to re-orient ourselves – our minds, our hearts, our bodies, even, toward God and God’s love.  We might even say that it means to become human in the face of the evil and  inhumanity around us.

In the fourth century, Gregory of Nanzianzus wrote this about what it means to be human,

… we must set before others the meal of kindness no matter why they need it – whether because they are widows, orphans, or exiles; or because they are brutalized by masters, crushed by rulers, dehumanized by tax-collectors, bloodied by robbers, or victimized by the insatiate greed of thieves, be it through confiscation of property or ship-wreck.  All such people are equally deserving of mercy, and they look to us for their needs just as we look to God for ours.

The meal of kindness.  When it’s just too awful, we don’t have to just throw up our hands in defeat, in helplessness or hopelessness.  We re-orient ourselves once more to God’s love.  And we reach out in compassion, even as our hearts are breaking.  We offer a meal of kindness to one another and to those in pain.  We remember that God is already there and so we pray.

How Important IS It?

Preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Mercer Island on September 30, 2012.
Proper 21 (Year B)

How IMPORTANT is it?  We answer that question dozens of times every day.  Most of the time we don’t really even think about it – it’s a no-brainer.  It’s easy to let go of the little things:  the other driver who wasn’t paying attention and wouldn’t let you in, that homework assignment that is just busywork, but you have to do it anyway, something your boss said at work today. You let it go and move on.

Then there are the gray area decisions.  Do I just let it go when the person in the next cubicle thinks racist jokes are funny?  Do I spend extra time writing that paper for class or do I go shopping with my daughter for things she needs for her prom next week.  Prom is once in a lifetime and she will be moving out soon.

But sometimes we face more challenging situations.  The ones that seem like there is an obvious answer the other way – of course we can’t let THAT go.  It may be closely tied to our identity or societal norms and expectations.  It may involve something that seems to be essential to life or even something we hold Holy.

When it comes to such essentials, for what are we willing to let them go?

Jesus seems to be getting a bit desperate and frustrated in today’s gospel.  In the course of the story, Jesus is nearing the end. He and his disciples are on the final journey to Jerusalem and the Passion.  It was just a few days ago, at the beginning of this chapter, that Jesus took Peter and James and John up the mountain where he was transfigured and they saw talking him to Elijah and Moses and they heard the voice from the cloud.  The one that said, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”  Now they’re travelling through Galilee toward Jerusalem.  By the end of the next chapter, they will be at the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Jesus is using these last few days to teach his disciples just exactly what discipleship demands.  And they don’t seem to be getting it!  In his storytelling, Mark sets up a pattern that he goes through three times:

  1. Jesus prophesies his Passion – his death and resurrection.
  2. The disciples don’t understand.
  3. Jesus teaches them about discipleship.

Today, we’re in the middle of the second iteration.  Last week we heard the prophecy of the Passion and the disciples confusion.  They were afraid  to even ask him to explain.  We heard Jesus teaching about discipleship means serving others in his name – especially serving those on the fringes; those whom society considers of little account, and he brought a child into their midst to make his point.

Today we hear a series of teachings about discipleship:

  • Don’t concern yourself about who’s in and who’s out, he told them.  When they saw someone who wasn’t one of them driving out demons in Jesus’ name, he told them don’t try to stop him.
  • Hospitality and kindness are important.  Anyone who so much as offers a drink of water to someone who comes in Jesus’ name will be rewarded.
  • And then he comes to the teaching about stumbling blocks and leading others astray.

In shockingly graphic detail, he tries to drive home just how important this is.  Living in the kingdom of God, living in eternal life, living in intimate relationship with God – right now, not as a reward after you die, but RIGHT NOW – is worth more than anything!  And you can’t come in if you’re at the door, keeping others out.  Don’t let stumbling blocks remain in your way, he teaches.  And don’t put stumbling blocks in the way of others.  Just in case they don’t get it he talks about drowning with a millstone around your neck and cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes.

This is our invitation into the kingdom.
It’s a good time to examine our lives – as individuals, yes, but even more importantly as a community.  It’s important to remember that we are One Body.  One Body not only with other Christians, but One Body with all other people, especially “the least of these” as Jesus so often said.

So, what are our stumbling blocks?  What gets between us and God?   What do we hang onto so tightly, thinking that it is absolutely essential, when it is actually hiding the Good News.  It gets in the way of the Gospel and keeps us out of the kingdom of God right now.

What stumbling blocks do we put in the path of others – especially the marginalized, leading them away from God’s love; making it difficult for them to even hear the gospel?  We cannot live fully in God’s kingdom while others are left out and suffering.

Now, it’s budget season.  It’s stewardship season.
And in case you missed it, it’s election season.

The decisions we make together are important.
They matter.
They are discipleship decisions.

Will we concern ourselves with deciding who’s in and who’s out?     Will we extend hospitality and kindness in Jesus’ name?  Will we be led astray? Or lead others astray?Will the budget we develop over the coming weeks be one that fosters discipleship?  Will your vote (or your pledge) put up stumbling blocks?  Or will it open wide the doors of God’s Kingdom?  These are hard decisions, but just as Jesus teaches, it’s worth it.

As disciples of Christ, we can make a difference.
Thanks be to God.

How Do We Belong?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on Maundy Thursday, 2012

How do we belong?

I think that’s one of life’s Big Questions, especially in times of upheaval, when it seems that structures we counted on seem to be frail or even to be failing.  We don’t usually ask it in quite that way, however.

It’s kind of like when we ask “What’s the meaning of life?” we may really mean something else; something more like, “What’s the meaning of my life?  How can I live so that my existence will have significance beyond myself and after I’m gone?”

How do we belong? This basic question encompasses a number of other questions, but is bigger than them.  Questions like,

Who are we?
Where do we belong?
With whom and to whom do we belong?
Who is my neighbor?
How do we serve?

I think it is this basic question that Jesus is trying to address in his last evening with his disciples.  We are listening in on Jesus’ final sermon, so to speak.  It’s the last time he talks to them before he’s arrested.  He’s highlighting all that he has tried to teach them and giving them something to hang onto after he’s gone.

It’s been an intense, often confusing three years or so.  The disciples have left homes, families, and livelihoods to follow Jesus.   Their world has been rocked.  But that’s nothing compared to what’s about to happen.  What will become of them when they no longer have Jesus’ physical presence to anchor them?

How will they belong?  Everything they ever belonged to has been left behind.

And so he ate with them and talked to them and prayed for them – four chapters worth, in fact, in John’s gospel.  But he also gave them physical, tangible signs to remind them after he was gone.

Every time they ate bread and drank wine, the stuff of everyday meals, they were to remember him, the community and fellowship they had formed together, and what he had taught them.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, every time they break the bread and drink the cup they proclaim Jesus’ death and resurrection until his coming again.

Every time they, or a servant, washed their feet, another everyday experience, you can be sure they would remember the time Jesus washed their feet.  They would remember what he told them – that they were to do the same.  They would remember that he told them to love one another, to love their neighbor, to love their enemies.

These tangible signs would anchor them in the time to come when it might seem that their whole world has turned upside down.  They would help them remember How they belong.

When I first came to Christ Church, I remember seeing the slogan, “Serving the U District since 1903” in a lot of places.  And I thought it was so cool!  While it was rooted in history, it conveyed an understanding of current, ongoing action; a sense of identity.  It was a statement of How Christ Church belonged.

As we move into this time of transition, we, too, may feel that our world is rocked.  We will ask questions about ourselves as a community.  Questions like

Who are we?  Where do we belong?
With whom and to whom do we belong?
Who is our neighbor?  How do we serve?
In other words, How do we belong?

The search may even become a quest.
We may need some tangible signs to anchor us.

In Steve’s last sermon, he took off his shoes and talked about Holy Ground.  He said that the ground we stand on, here at Christ Church is Holy Ground.  But he went on to say that when he leaves, the space in between us is and always will be Holy Ground.  This is important for us to remember that when we leave the building tonight, or on Sunday morning and go about our lives, we are still Christ Church and the ground we stand on and all the ground in between is Holy Ground.

When members move away, the ground between us and them is Holy Ground.  From Marysville to Issaquah to Fort Lewis; From Athens Georgia to Hilo Hawaii, from Texas to Boston to St. Mary’s Convent in England, we are on Holy Ground.  So, tonight, when you take off your shoes, and every time you put them on or take them off, I want you to remember that you are Christ Church and you are standing on Holy Ground.

On a certain level, this whole service is a sermon.  There is a lot of activity involved.  But we aren’t pretending to be Jesus’ disciples; we aren’t re-enacting the last evening they spent with Jesus.  Rather, we are already disciples, we’re experiencing and practicing what Jesus taught.

I wonder if, for us, the bread and wine of communion have become removed from our experience of daily meals with our families or our community that our daily bread, so to speak, is no longer a proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us.   For that matter, have communal meals been removed from our daily experience?

For us, apart from showering, washing feet is not a daily experience and this ritual we do tonight may seem uncomfortable and foreign.  But tonight.  Tonight, we have the opportunity to reclaim the signs Jesus gave us.  Tonight we have the opportunity to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection as we eat a real meal together.  We have the opportunity to wash one another’s feet.  We have the opportunity to experience How we belong.

Disruptive Alleluias

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on April 15, 2012.
Easter 2B

Alleluia, Christ is risen!!

How disruptive is that?  For most of us, not very.  I mean, it happened a long time ago.  We live in a post-resurrection world.  To ask what significance it has may be a bit like asking what’s the significance of having running water?  We have no way of knowing what it was like before the resurrection.  Regardless of what one believes about it – what Jesus’ body was like, whether the resurrection was quite literal or more metaphorical, or even that the whole thing is a hoax or simply a fairy tale of sorts – even atheists live in a post-resurrection world, after all.  It simply doesn’t have the power of an event that truly disrupts our lives.
A total game-changer.

You’ve probably had those experiences though; if not, you will eventually.  For many, 9/11 was such an event.  It changed their understanding of our place in the world; their sense of personal safety and risk they face every day.

Many disruptive events are more individual and affect us on an intimately personal level.  Events such as:

  • The birth of a child into the family
  • The loss of a close family member
  • A medical diagnosis
  • Loss of a job or starting a new one
  • Even getting a new boss can be a disruptive event.
  • Moving out of the house for the first time –
    or the last time.

There’s a sense that life will never be the same again.  And it won’t.

Now try to imagine the disruption Jesus’ resurrection caused for the disciples.  Their lives had already been disrupted by their decision to follow Jesus in the first  place.   Here we see them and it’s still that very first day.  Already an awful lot has happened.  The day began for them, when that crazy woman, Mary Magdalene, came and told them that Jesus’ body was gone; the tomb was empty.  Right.  Except Peter and John went back with her to see and sure enough, it was empty.  The guys came back and told them so.  But Mary stayed a little longer and then came back and said she had actually seen him!

Can you imagine trying to wrap your head around all that?  And now, night has fallen and they locked themselves in the house – all except Thomas.  They were afraid.  What would happen next?  They were afraid they may be next on the cross.  They may have been afraid that Jesus would confront them – after all, they abandoned him in the garden when he was arrested.  At his darkest hour, they were nowhere to be seen.  So much for all their bravado at dinner just hours before.

On the other hand, if he was alive, where was he?  Why hadn’t he come to them?  Maybe that’s where Thomas was, looking for Jesus.  Would they continue where they left off; traveling the country preaching, teaching, healing?

They probably were not expecting what happened next.

Jesus showed up, dispelling their doubts (all except Thomas).  And he said, “Peace be with you.”  Now that was the standard greeting, but it also offered them forgiveness and reconciliation.  He wasn’t holding it against them that they abandoned him.   Ok.  Sigh of relief.

Even more unexpected.  No, they weren’t just going to continue what they were doing before.  Jesus sent them to continue.  He told them to forgive and if they retained sins, they would be retained.  He sent them to reconcile people to God.  And then, to make sure Thomas was included too, Jesus came back a week later.  Now all the disciples’ doubts had been answered.

Now. Imagine Jesus’ resurrection disrupting your life that dramatically.  Imagine Jesus breathing on you and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  As the Father sent me, so I send you.  If you forgive, sins are forgiven; if you retain sins, they are retained.”

What will you do?  Those of you who were here on Maundy Thursday may remember that I said we’re not pretending to be disciples.  We already are.  What are we going to do about it?  What will you do about it?

What if the resurrection is about practicing forgiveness?  And I’m not talking about saying “I forgive you,” or “Your sins are forgiven.”  I’m talking about actually forgiving; no longer keeping accounts, so to speak, but letting go of the injury and all that goes along with it.  There’s a commercial on the radio that features a woman talking about the day her doctor told her she had breast cancer and how her life has changed.  Her cancer is gone, but she sees things differently.  As she points out, when the barista gets her latte order wrong, it’s no big deal anymore.

Imagine how light we might feel if we quit carrying the burden of others’ sins.

And now imagine how that might spread.  It reminds me of an online video that was making the rounds awhile back.  It started with someone doing something kind for someone.  That person turned around and did something kind for the next person.  You should have seen the kindness and the smiles spread.

Imagine if we treated others as fully forgiven.  Everyone.  All the time.   And if that forgiveness spread.

That’s resurrection.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen.

The Church as First Responders

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on Pentecost, 2012  (Year B)

For years, I wore the same kind of sneakers.  It was great, when they wore out, I could just walk into the store and say I need this shoe in this size, pay for them and walk out of the store with a pair of shoes that I knew would be comfortable and fit me.  Then, one day, they were gone.  They suggested an alternative, the shoe that replaced the one I wanted, but it didn’t fit right and wasn’t as comfortable.  Back to shopping.

Have you ever had that happen?  You go in to buy an old standby and it’s now “new and improved?”  Improved beyond recognition sometimes.  Or worse, it’s just not available anymore – not enough demand.

Are you ever afraid that will happen to your church; that it will be “improved” beyond recognition or worse, that demand will drop so much that it just won’t be available anymore?

I imagine that Peter might look at us and think we are “new and improved” beyond recognition.
At Pentecost we look back and remember the very beginnings of the church.  We all wear red to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit that ignited this incredible movement that has spread across the globe.

It’s also a good time to reflect on what it means to be the church; what it means for us to be church – especially in this time of transition – to look forward to what God is calling us to become as church.

There are a lot of metaphors for the church.  Museum for saints is most often used as a metaphor for what we are not – and for what some people think we claim to be and therefore it makes us hypocrites.  It’s usually used in contrast to another metaphor –a hospital for sinners.

Metaphors are helpful up to a point but sometimes we take them too far.  For example the metaphor of the Church as a Shop. Eugene Peterson wrote about this in his book, Working the Angles

The pastors of America have [become] a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.

Churches do share some attributes with business.  We incorporate and register with the state, we name officers and are run by a board of directors.  We own property, buy insurance, and hire employees.

Maybe we’re taking the metaphor too far, though, when we wring our hands wondering why we don’t have as many customers as we used to.  Is it because we’re not trendy enough?  Or are we too trendy?  Maybe it’s our “product line” or inadequate “marketing.”  And what is our product, anyway?  God? Jesus? Programs? A nice nursery? The Gospel?

If the clergy are shopkeepers, what about the people in the congregation?  Are they all customers? Or are some in Sales or Marketing or Customer Service or even Production?  Maybe Church as shop is not adequate.

This morning I would like to offer a different metaphor for the church and I hope you will ponder it in your hearts in the coming weeks.  What if we were to think of ourselves as a community of First Responders?

Many people these days, are talking and writing about what’s going on in the world – the changes and especially the pace of change.  They’re describing not only the details of specific changes but the global, long-term ramifications of these changes.  I have found that Diana Butler Bass articulates it very well in her most recent book, Christianity After Religion.  She is an Episcopalian and a historian who writes about the church and teaches at our seminaries.  I’ll let you read the book for yourself, but one of her central points is that what we have been observing in our churches is happening, now, all across the country, in every denomination.

And what’s happening in the church is just one little piece of the shifting that is happening in the world.  She and others claim that we are in the middle of a major paradigm shift.  Increasingly people don’t trust traditional principles and institutions.  We’re finding that the things we used to stake our lives on are no longer reliable.  This paradigm shift is something like an earthquake in people’s lives.

Now, we know something about earthquakes around here and about the importance of earthquake preparedness.  We’ve heard the three-days-three-ways commercials and we’ve heard Liz Osborne talk about how to prepare our homes and cars, and workplaces so that we’re ready when the Big One hits.

Well, I suggest that we, as the church, put together earthquake preparedness kits of sorts so that we are ready to respond as this earthquake of a paradigm shift progresses.  The thing is, the purpose of this kit I’m talking about is not to help us survive; it’s so that we can help others – so that we can be First Responders.

What shall we put in the kit?  What will be the food and water, the flashlights and roadmaps, the emergency blankets and first aid supplies that people will need when the dust settles and the earth stops moving for a moment?

Jesus calls us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to bring light into darkness, to bring comfort and sustenance to those in pain or in need – whether it’s because of a personal crisis or a chronic longing for God, or a radical shift in how they view and understand the world – when their home has been shaken off of its foundation, so to speak.

So, if we are to be a community of First Responders, then maybe the building is to be a base camp or aid station.  It’s a place for us to come for rest and renewal, for refreshment through holy food and drink with our community; for comfort and encouragement, for sharing our experience and learning new skills.  It’s a place to store supplies for our emergency kits and to receive  “9-1-1” calls.

But most calls for help won’t come through the church’s phone.  Most will be simply a look or a whisper or even an angry shout or an act of violence.  We need to be prepared to recognize the call and to respond with what is needed; to offer salvation in many forms.

You know, Jesus and the apostles didn’t offer one-size-fits-all salvation.  They didn’t set up shop and persuade people that they needed and should buy what they had to offer.  No, they went to the people, bringing the salvation they needed.  Sometimes salvation was healing of an illness; other times it was casting out demons or raising the dead; it was restoring people to their families and communities, or on occasion, forgiving sins.  For some salvation was a bit of fish and a piece of bread or even words of hope.

And so, as we dress in red and remember how the Holy Spirit came like flame to ignite the church on Pentecost, what is our prayer?  Are we hoping it doesn’t happen to us?

Or do we pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us now and light a fire in our hearts and in our church that we may continue Christ’s work in the world, bringing salvation as First Responders.