Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sermon for Pentecost 13C

St Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the Fourth century, writes that God becomes human so that we might become Godly, and that was what I was after when I joined the church. When I was 21 years old, in 1967, I joined the church to feel important. I was also planning to join a tennis club and a University club, a fraternity, for the same reason to get me invited to some big important dinner party where I’d know I had gotten it right! 
It didn’t last. I quit the tennis club pretty quickly, the fraternity that I wanted to join didn’t ask me and the one that asked me wasn’t the one I wanted to join, so I passed on that too, but the church turned out to be something different that what I had wanted or expected. 
For I realized, after some time, that what was more true, and what I think Athanasius might have meant, was that God becomes human so that he can meet us there, right in the middle on human being, and so that we can be fully human together, fully alive to the glory of God in being human. Jesus had a different idea of the ideal dinner party than I had at 21. Listen: 
When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 
This didn’t sit easy with me at first, I wanted to be exalted right away: Godly, stained glass and organ music when I walked in, people saying: “He’s very special that one, really holy, watch out!” But that isn’t where Jesus met me, meets us; Christ seems to come from heaven to bring us down to earth, to share his body and blood so that we can be truly flesh and blood, but flesh and blood living right, as God created us, calls us, to be.
I recently watched a video on Youtube called “Breathing”, made by a group called Nooma. It’s about being both Adam and Pneuma, both dirt and spirit. For the Hebrew word Adam comes from the word for earth, dirt, and that’s where we come from too! That’s the truth of what we’re about; we are earthy, sometimes dirty too, we come from dust and return to dust. It hard to live with that, to accept that we are meant to be fragile flesh and blood, limited, aging. We start out so small and we seem to slow down so much. To make a confession, the other day I saw a young man sit down on the floor to play with a dog and then quickly jump up and walk away, and I was so jealous! I can’t move that easy, flexible way anymore. This collection of dirt feels a bit rocky sometimes! T. S. Eliot, my favorite poet, writes, “The only thing we can hope to acquire is humility, humility is endless.” That is not an easy truth. But to come from the earth, humus, and to be a person, human, we need to take up our humility, and that means taking the lower seat. For the plain truth is that unless we accept our earthiness, our dirty limits, we miss the chance to be invited to come higher up, to accept our God-given godliness, holiness. That’s the other side of who we are. We are called to accept Pneuma, breath, God’s spirit, as much of a gift as our creatureliness, and as common as our daily bread, right in the midst of who and where we are. We are called to take on God’s free spirit in the middle of all our human limits; to receive that breath that breathes us, all of us, all of creation, and to take on that gift that calls us higher up, all the way to heaven. 
That’s one of the reasons I try to pray and meditate regularly, to keep open to that clear truth, the message that comes with the breath of the spirit; that God calls us, as ground up by life as we are, to breathe the spirit of God in all that we do and all that we are. For to balance both sides, the ground and the glory, to take on both as gift, takes work. To open our lives and our hands to take this gift we have to let go of a lot: what we thought we wanted to be, to do, to woo, to win, and instead accept the God-given gift of what we’ve got, to bloom where we’re planted, to take what we’re given, to, quoting a 1960s song, “love the one we’re with!” 
As the letter to the Hebrews puts it. “Be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
And the good news is that graceful acceptance gives freedom, the kind of freedom Jesus lives with and shares with us, a freedom that lasts forever. Not the power that puts you at the top of the table with the select few, but an awareness that you are founded in and grounded in God, in your very humanity, humility, the life you live, the lessons you receive, the world you share with everyone! That leaves room for God to breathe, for God’s spirit to refine our daily routines and realities; to continue to redeem, renew; so paradoxically, a life that lives right now and takes us beyond death to touch the eternal. 
But it it does so in the middle of the very human journey, right where Jesus meets us.  So we can and must, as Hebrews says, “Let mutual love continue” at all times and places! [We] Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for [we know] by doing that some have entertained angels.” Because that common, God-given life of matter and spirit, ground and grace limit and love, opens up room for surprise, where all the world can be seen as the place where God is on the loose with a hospitality that  leaves no one outside. 
There’s the paradox I wish I’d known about earlier: if we don’t get above ourselves, God will lift us up, call us out, bring us home at the end. If we remember we are but dust, and let God remind us that we are spirit, breath, then God’s message of redemption, comes in breathing in and living out Good News by God’s grace, when we take the long way home, and get there living life along with everybody else.  
The celebration is big enough to include those in prisons of any kind, those tortured by whatever tyrannies hold them captive; the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind in body, mind and spirit. For in God’s good reign, all of us can come to a place where blessings can happen, where new life, eternal life can come to be, to be given, taken up, offered, accepted and transformed. 
To quote the song from the sixties, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” and Jesus is free, a gift from God who gives us freedom inasmuch as we let ourselves be free to follow him deep into that dance where love weaves dirt and water into bread and wine, into life, into spirit, into love that lasts forever. 
This meal, this Eucharist, is the opening course in that great banquet, and we come here to confess our sins, to hear God’s word, to pray for the world and wish peace to our neighbor and the stranger, and to the accept the honor of being loved by God. This is the great feast, the heavenly table, and God is calling each of us, humble creatures of ground and grace, substance and spirit, to come further up, to join in the beginning of the heavenly banquet. Amen. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Mini-Sabbaths

In the 1980s, while I was at seminary, the professor of pastoral care had a great one-liner: “People came to seminary to become Godly, and often ended up somewhat Lordly instead.” It is so true, so often, for so many of us, and it’s always been that way. We, the church, the people of God, still tend to get caught in Lordliness as much as the religious establishment in the Gospel for today,

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

That response takes the focus away from what had been a story of a woman being healed, removing the yoke, satisfying the needs of the afflicted, opening to mercy, healing the wounds of time, and that Lordly response confronts us with the wrong kind of religiosity, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, and the narrowing of Sabbath, time set aside for the most intentional refreshment recollection and renewal, whittled down into a time when certain things just shouldn’t be done,

But what should be done, what is the right way to live into the Sabbath, to remember our lives belongs to God? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote” "Living is not a private affair of the individual. Living is what I do with God's time, what I do with God's world." But how do we get there from here, into God’s time from the nonstop noise and numbers of our increasingly busy world? How do we remember to keep the Sabbath as a time and place we remember the big questions and the bigger answer?

My working hunch is that you start with something small and do it often. When the poet Rilke was asked, “How do I learn to love?”, he replied, “Start small: love a rock for a little while, then a tree, work your way up.” So instead of keeping a day a week to honor and remember and recall God and the who where and why of it all; maybe we just can take a few minute every day, perhaps a few times a day, for a mini Sabbath, starting small.

One of the best ways to do that is the Lord’s Prayer. Almost everyone knows it, lots of people say it every day already, we say it a little later in the service. But if we said it several times a day, taking a little time for it in our daily ritual as an exercise in sacred time, it might stretch Sabbath into the middle of everyday, everywhere: to remember the who and where and why of God’s time, God’s world.

Listen to how the prayer begins:

“Our Father in Heaven” is literally close to “Dada of the Universe.” And what does that say? That the realm of the prayer is both so big, before the sunrise beyond the night, beyond all the black holes and supernovas and any notion of space and time: and yet still so intimate, that this great God invites us to call out  “Abba,” like Dada, or Mama for that matter. Common and close as the father or mother of a newborn babe, close enough to trust, close enough to call out to under any circumstances, at any time, That God could go that far yet come that close has to make us pause, begins take us to the realm of Sabbath.

Then there are three imperatives that we call for and proclaim: First, may your name be hallowed, holy, may I keep my understanding of your name, your attributes, your power, beyond my tendency to manipulate, beyond my business day trips, and nighttime fantasies may I keep your holy knowing beyond all my profane imagination. Instead may your kingdom, your values, your vision, your compassion and justice and love come and may your will be done, here, on Earth as in Heaven, and (here’s the clincher) may I be part of that ongoing liturgy, work, action.

That part of the prayer is weaving the world into one, into our daily lives, and weaving us into the world of saints, pilgrims of Sabbath times of all times: like Mary, “Be it unto me according to your word,” like Francis, “Let me be an instrument of your peace.” commissioning us as part of the great call and ministry of mercy, of creativity, as part of the ongoing work of God, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, Nicholas Berdyev wrote that “we are the eighth day of creation. And it starts right here.

That is a stretch, but the genius of the prayer is that it takes up from there to the starkest necessities of human life together, to being children of earth.

“Give us today our daily bread.”

Food can mean so many things, it can be junk food, or feast, both nature and nurture, it means refreshment and fuel, ecology and economics, connection and company, The bread we eat, the wine we drink means grapes and water: yeast and fat and oil and wheat mixed and kneaded, warmed and transformed, many backs have been bent; many hands have stretched out over the seasons to give us food at our daily tables. Many have gathered to ensure this harvest to make that daily bread rise.

And when Jesus says, “This is my body, this is my blood!” He is saying I am willing to be known in this Eucharist, and I tell you I will be here, but prepare to meet me in the entire world, because in my love I have taken up with the body and blood of all humankind and all creation. This bread and wine are means of my love to you, but I mean to love you in everywhere, in everything, in everyone! Give us today our daily bread, let us know who we eat with, and how and why!

So in Sabbath we learn to celebrate God meeting us in the particulars of our own flesh and that of our neighbor, our lover, the stranger, the enemy, God is coming to meet us in the wideness of the whole world, and that means we need to be careful: because the prayer is taking us into tough territory, maybe the most difficult part of being a Christian, following Jesus, living this prayer.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us

I was in my thirties when it hit me that how you judge might be the way you will be judged, and if God were only just, than that might be all we can expect; but there may be more in the Sabbath. For Sabbath means rest and renewal and forgiveness and a new beginning; it is best if we can participate in that creative renewal fully, and let everyone else do so as well. And that means participating in God’s forgiveness fully as we participate in the rest of God’s creation, even when it’s tough, and letting people, even people who’ve sinned against us, all poor captives, be forgiven, go free, to seek their own Sabbath.

Then the second, “Lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) and deliver us from evil.” Nobody wants to go there, but the glory of the community of the church, when we gather in that place where sabbath makes an end and God grants a new beginning, to the week and to the world, is that we find out we all go there, even God goes there. Everytime we gather as the church, when we pray, when we share peace, when we eat the bread of life, the cup of salvation: someone is dying, someone is born, someone’s in trial and someone’s been tempted, someone’s found peace and someone wakes to glory. This is the way of God, where we share in the cup of salvation given by the one who knows all about it, who will carry us all the way home right through the time of trial, , like a mother hen, like a just and faithful king, like the ruler of the universe.

So wisdom adds the ending like a coda: “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours, Now and Forever” and the prayer ends close to where it begins, deposits us not far from where we started, but now changed, by remembering the close caring and compassion in which we are held, recalling where we come from, where we’re going and the one who meets us on the way, who is our Lord and our God. Amen

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Towards a Theology of Tennis!

Sunday Sermon - 8 August 2010
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

Jesus says "Be ready", but this section of scripture, with the slave and master, always seems a little kinky to me, like that bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming soon, look busy!” It rings wrong, because I think the readiness he’s looking for is not that of a fearful slave, but more like a seasoned dancer or a trained athlete. So I want to talk about a theology of tennis as a model for good discipleship. 

I’ve been thinking about tennis a lot lately. It’s been over ten years since the last time I was on a court, but I played tennis most of my life. I joke that, since I wasn’t raised in a church, the tennis club served that purpose. It gave us community, shared purpose, both discipline and joy and a way to meet the world. I played a lot as a kid and an my early teens, but I had a tendency to lose focus, get too tight when the score was against me, try percentage shots that didn’t pay off, and I didn’t like to practice that much. 

But I will never forget my father, while we were watching a tennis match together – and either Ken Rosewall or Arthur Ashe was playing - saying: "He looks relaxed, but he’s playing smart, he knows what’s going on, nothing gets by him, he’s ready for anything." 

So in my late twenties, one summer when I had been working in our families printing business for a few years and was preparing to return to University and finish my undergraduate degree, an older friend and I spent two or three late afternoons and most Saturday mornings every week meeting on some public courts and working on our game. We even went to the local club and got lessons back to back so that we could take each other through our homework which, in my case, meant a lot of work on my backhand and a lot of time on the backboard; but by the end of the summer, when I returned to Uni, my game was better, more consistent; I was more disciplined and, paradoxically, also more free, livelier and lighter, in my game, in how I met the ball, and in how I lived my life. 

In the early 1980s I worked on a Masters degree in the History of Religion and I spent part of one semester working on a theology of tennis called Serving God: to serve, receive and return bright vehicles of meaning. I realise that sounds terribly California, but playing the game well taught me how to live life better. 

And that’s where tennis meets the Gospel for today. Jesus calls us to be disciplined in thought, word, deed and action: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those…waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him.” Alert and ready
when he comes; prepared, ready for action, like a good servant, like a good athlete, ready to serve, receive, return, all the bright opportunities, that come in living with the possibility of God. That is why we’re here, to prepare ourselves for what is wanted of God’s servants, God’s disciples, friends, in preparing for the the great heavenly banquet which just might, by the grace of God, start right here and now. 

We are here to remind ourselves, in body, mind and spirit, of what we agree to in our Baptismal vows:

“to strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with your whole heart, and your neighbor as yourself.” 

“to know Christ’s forgiving love and continue in the fellowship of the church…[and to proclaim] by word and example, the good news of God in Christ… 

So our liturgy is a kind of practice sessions, a lesson, even a dance class, in working out, living out, moving out: a choreography of belief. Visitors and newcomers notice that more than those of us who are regulars in the weekly routine: for they see how very odd it is. We sit, stand, kneel and bow. Some of us cross ourselves this way and that, we pass and give and receive, move forward and back. Finally returning to the same place, but changed, somehow, by the motions we go through. You can see newcomers looking around, thinking, “What in God’s name are they going to do next?”  But what we are acting out in this place is a kind of spiritual workout routine, for the rest of our lives in the rest of the world. 

Because if you really look, you can learn to see our whole liturgy, from Baptism on, as nothing less than a dancing class or a tennis lesson. Here we learn the radical choreography, where we come to move in the world with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. In the end, it is all about the we way we prepare, wait, respond, return: all the actions that we learn here. 

We come to church on Sunday, bringing nothing less than our selves, our whole selves, souls and bodies, to the Eucharist. Bringing all our particular questions and concerns, issues and ideas, histories, hopes and fears, the best and worst of who and what we are, where we come from and where we are going. Taking all that when we get here and mixing it up with this liturgy of confession and praise, mercy and glory, in listening and responding to the words in psalm and scripture, the articulation of the community of faith gathered through history into the present day. Presenting our sins, our concerns, our thanksgivings, all our self-offerings: and then joining with Jesus in his self-offering as disciples and friends, taking part in this eternal communion. Taking all that we have and all that we are, and giving it all over, giving it all up as we take his body and blood, and remember that we are members of his body. This is what we do: this is who we are.
So what you see here is really faith moving on; that’s the point of the whole courtly dance routine, the larger game. We come to reach for Christ; and Christ comes to us and uses our ministry to reach out to the world. We come to get a grip on him; and we stay to learn to hand him to the world and hand the world back to him. For the hands which grasp the body and blood of Christ here, are the same hands -same body- that touch the world in daily life in the places where we make business, peace, war and love, touch the lives of friends and strangers, spend our days. The love of God in Christ reaches into the particulars of all our daily liturgies so that we come to move like Christ in all these places. 

Each and every one of our ministries happen when we create, redeem, and relate like God, wherever we are: where we give our gifts. It doesn’t matter whether it be how to throw a ball, cook a pie, write a paper, fix a fixture, apply an appliance, tell a tale or do a deed. Ministry happens when you lovingly act to share the part of the world that you know well, where the actions and attitudes are clear to you, where you act to give that clarity and light to others, so that they can take part in that relationship, that action as well. Some people heal with kindness, others love the stranger, listen well. Some make justice, visit the sick, give to the poor, live cheerfully, tell the truth. Sometimes we just show up, but we do what we can. 

For each one of us, as members of Christ’s body, is called to proceed – play or dance, if you like - into the world which God loves, day after day, year after year, time after time: to take on the tasks of stewardship in this wonderful world: to be present to family, friends and strangers, in tasks, hobbies, jobs and joys, present in the times of frustrations and puzzlements, present in agreements that must be honored, in situations that must be met. All of these are places where we act out, serve out, flesh out, live out the reconciling life of Jesus  - in serving love of every kind - in the ministry of acceptance, love, and forgiveness. For those are the places and the actions where we shall both find and serve the very God who loves and serves us. 

May God give us grace today to take up our lives and our ministries as gifts to be received and gifts to be given, and all in Christ’s name. Amen.