Monday, February 20, 2012
Here are some reflections as we move to Lent.
I was figuring, since I joined the church in 1967, when I was 21, and since I turn 66 this April, that I've been through 45 seasons of Lent. Often, in the early years, I would get a little tense in this season, 'though I loved Easter, loved the church for all the history, mystery hope of it. But when the priest read the part of the liturgy in the American Prayer Book calling us to the “observance of a good and holy Lent,” I wasn't quite so sure.
But the church had given me so much, telling me, to quote a poem from that era, all these rich stories of where we come from where we're going, and why all the traveling; helping me see new vistas, meet new possibilities, make new friends who loved me and who all told me, by word or deed, that I was the salt of the earth, a light of the world, a city on a hill. The church gave me some wonderful gifts and I was thankful
This came to mind reading Diana Butler Bass’ book called “Christianity for the rest of us” where she defines ten “signposts of renewal;” which she is finding in some thriving and growing mainstream Christian congregations. I found these gifts in 1967; maybe you did too: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty. I might just make a poster with those words to put on my wall, to make me remember that was the background music, the melody that gave me a sense of the Good News of God in the community at Grace Episcopal Church, Fairfield, California over forty years ago: offering friendship, a safe place to grow, to hear, and to begin to tell my story anew and in the light of God's love.
So like a good adult convert I got to be very religious! I read, I took up the offering, I sang in the choir, I even became an assistant leader and then the leader in the parish youth group. I loved that, but when a new priest, somewhat Anglo-Catholic, came in, I became even more religious about ceremony and liturgy; I learned to cross myself three ways, I started to site my breast during the Mass. I whispered, “I am not worthy” and almost believed it. and then when the season of Lent began in 1972 or 1973 I pledged to spend every Friday evening on my knees in the Lady Chapel following the stations of the cross, following Jesus through Jerusalem on that fateful day.
But then a young man I had known from the youth group, the grandson of an old and faithful member of the church, who was the occasional boyfriend of a girl who was more active in the parish, phoned me to ask if we could talk. He had got caught making some stupid mistakes, common errors for the young, all of us, which was caused severe pain to people he loved and others; and he saw something about his own selfishness, and he wondered if God was angry at him, was finished with him, could forgive him. He wondered if he could forgive himself. I asked him to meet me at the church early Friday evening and we talked it over, prayed about it, and I was able to share with him something of the God I was coming to know who loved each of us, even with all the sad news, even with all the mistakes, even with our mixed motives and limited means. I was able to share, deeper than ever before, more than I knew I knew, something of what Paul talks about this morning, something of the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”. And there was some real healing, even in the pain, and a new resolution on his part, to do the right thing, to do God's will, to seek the kingdom.
So he left with a lightened load and I walked into the Chapel, feeling like I had witnessed and participated in a mountaintop experience, a transfiguration, a new understanding about how history, mystery and hope meet us in the middle of the journey. and I knelt to pray, "Lord, I am not worthy,"and it was as if God said, "Just stop praying so much; just go on to Jerusalem."
A pretty holy person once asked me, "How uncomfortable are you willing to be for the kingdom of heaven for the reign of God?” Like good St Peter, I talk too much, listen too little, and don't allow grace to grow in my experience too easily. But what I know was that my life in the church, my journey with God had changed me for the better, and though I wasn't real sure just yet how I would do it and what I’d do, I knew I had to head out of the quiet chapel and off of the mountaintop and into the nearest City of God, to those confused, noisy, contaminated places where God is willing to give himself away on purpose, into the very world of the Beatitudes. Listen:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
That's what Jesus preached, that's how he lived, that's what took him and his growing group of friends and followers from the clear light of the mountaintop and onto Jerusalem to a dark day dying on a hill on the edge of that unquiet city; leading them into the depth of the City, into the heart of contradiction, to a crossroad where there was an almost unbelievable breakthrough of death over life, of love over hate, of God's word speaking clear truth in a noisy world: a truth that lasts, that changes the world we live in the present day.
Today, some forty years of Lent later we're in a significant place in the church, not only in this diocese but around a lot of the world, our numbers are down, our ages up, averaging around 72, and that’s not uncommon in the Anglican world. We need to look at that, at our heritage, our heart, our hope, in light of where we come from and where we're going and why all the traveling. Jerusalem is waitingIn those difficult and serious questions; and that is where Jesus is calling us to go. So we need people to walk that way, to take up the call of a new church community serving Christ in the world he loves. And the truth is there won't be many; some won't be interested and some can't (for very good reasons, and that’s fine).
But I believe there are some, a significant number of us who are called to stretch and grow and pray through and work out how these ten signposts that Diana Butler Bass writes about: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty. might show up as signposts of prayer and practice around the diocese. And I hope that a few people will join in, ‘cause it’s a better road when you walk together.
But it’s the same question then as now: How uncomfortable are you willing to be for the kingdom of heaven, for the reign of God? How far will you go to meet the stranger, to welcome the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn, the hungry, thirsty, pure in heart, somebody else's grandchild, or your own: people who don't know they are light of the world, the salt of the earth, a city on a hill? How far will you go to be the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”? Those are the questions that Peter was facing than, and the questions we we are facing now.
May God give us the clarity of the mountaintop so that we may follow him into the CIty he loves. And may we all have a good and holy Lent.
In the name of Christ. Amen
Sunday, February 12, 2012
In the early 1980s I took a fall, went through a roof to spend a week in the hospital and three months in a metal brace and it pulled me out of graduate school and shook up my soul; made me wonder what I stood for. So several friends suggested I meet with a man who was a bit of a guru. He had started out in medical research, studied meditation and Buddhism, grown his hair out, was contemplative and kind and wise, and so I went to see him. I talked a lot. I outlined my background, talked about my troubles and the injury, shared my hopes and fears: and he finally looked at me, paused, and said, "Be a brave hero, but don't tell anybody."
It was very good advice and it was very difficult to take because, as a fourth generation Californian, I share too much; it's genetic! It you ask me, "How are you?" Then stand back, sit down, get coffee, light a cigarette, I'll tell you! So if I were going to be a brave hero, then I would have a very tough time not sharing that slogan, telling that story, over and over! Peter Berger, the sociologist, wrote we must talk about ourselves in order to know ourselves, but I think sometime that deep need to tell the stories and share the slogans, can keep us from simply living our lives and meeting our ministry.
So I think that's why that healed leper couldn't follow Jesus' advice, why he had to tell everybody, why he couldn't rest in and live out of the simple reassurance that he had been visited by, healed by, touched by the human hand of God. Because he lived, like us, in a world where we are so often defined by what we know, what we buy into and what we can tell about; our simple stories, our popular slogans, our easy answers.
It's all around. I remember, some years ago, a very sincere minister assuring me that, if I could correctly answer the four questions contained in one small pamphlet, I would be assured of my place in heaven. Just go down the list and sign on the last page. It was better than insurance! Then several years ago I gave a homily on the mysterious ways of God and a visiting man from a small Protestant group told me that his faith taught that God's laws were simple and always easy to follow. I didn't say it, but I thought, "I'm sorry, but I've never even visited that universe!" The God I've come to know and try to follow, to be true to, is as mysterious as sunrise and death and love, as much a mysterious gift as the healing touch of a friend or stranger, is a lot like life.
But we keep settling for easy slogans, hoping for easy answers. Several years ago when I was the chaplain at RMIT University in Melbourne a young single mother dealing with deep depression came to see me. She said, "My life looks nothing like what I see on the web or at the Mall, and I don't know what's wrong with me!" What was wrong was that she was looking for easy answers when she should have been considering difficult questions. Because the easy answers, the slogans we can buy from the mall to cover our doubts and dreads, don't wear well, they aren't designed to last. She needed to look for the deeper questions that endure, nurture, and finally take us all the way home.
But we're all so used to settling for snappy slogans and proper packaging. And that's not new! Look at Naaman the Syrian, forced to wash in the local river even though he'd like a bit more flash: "I'm willing to pay the price, I just want a bigger river, a better presentation!"
And what about Paul on winning the race? I do love Paul, really, but I think this is not one of his best moments; because that kind of heroism: taking the prize and winning the race, can lead to that peculiar piety you see on football fields, in a military campaigns and in the talk that leads up to an election campaign: all these people striving to win the prize, in ways that justify winning by any means necessary, striving to be brave heroes who tell everybody everything.
So what do we do instead? How do we witness and work to reignite our church in a world that's fast moving in another direction, What do we do where slick slogans and quick answers are shouted at every corner? Well, we don't stay quiet as the greatest ethical, spiritual, wisdom tradition within Western civilization moves slowly towards the sunset? And we don't let the last person standing fold the tent and turn the lights out? What we do is simply remember who we are. Because it is not what we say, it is what we do, and it's who we are!
Remember St. Francis' great one-liner, "Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary." What a slogan to end all slogans! That's where we go. Be a brave Christian and don't tell anybody, but follow Jesus into the middle of your life and to the crucible of your own unique ministry!
For it is in the very depths of your life and your living where the Gospel must be proclaimed: not in easy answers, sweet songs and snappy slogans, not in judgements or jargon, but in the living sermon of sharing your purpose and passion, your losses and loves, your cares and your convictions, in the great gift you have been given in being you. That's what we do, because we're not here to build another mall, we're here to proclaim a new humanity with ongoing actions of mercy, justice and love!
Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity for the rest of us: How the neighborhood church is transforming the faith, defines ten “signposts of renewal;” actions she finds in some thriving and growing mainstream Christian congregations. They are Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty. I really want to print out that list in big letters and put it on my wall. Those aren't answers, but a life-sized lifetime ministry ! That's not "take my test" or "read my creed," but follow Jesus' life of love, of self-giving, of really living! Follow the Lord into the middle of right here and right now.
That's a vision that gives me hope. For Butler Bass sees thriving congregations forming people in faith, linking a progressive vision to a new sense of spirituality and a renewed appreciation for Christian tradition. And that means "Walks for the homeless and walking the labyrinth. Living wage and a way of living the Benedictine rule. Attention to inclusive language and deep attentiveness to the Bible. Social justice and spirituality joined in an open community of practice."
That's where ministry happens, that's what the church means when it proclaims good news, not buy my book, but live my life of love.
So that brings us to this morning, to installing two people to do new ministry in this parish. I have known Grace Sharon and John Hanley (and Nettie) for awhile now, have shared meals and meetings and questions on the way and they're great people prepared to do wonderful ministry. They bring substantial gifts (which you'll see and share over time), and they can be a great asset as we as God's church, God's people, move to renew the vitality and vision of the church. But if we're talking about ministry, about the renewal of the world in light of our faith in Jesus, then this isn't just about them, it's about each of us, it's about all of us.
Let me tell you this. One of the loveliest parts of being a priest comes in the middle of the Eucharist. To walk out in front of God and everybody and say, "We are the Body of Christ", and everyone responds, "His spirit is with us." It is a pure joy, this great truth. His spirit is with us, with Grace and John and Nettie and everybody up here and everybody out there and everybody everywhere. Because, by the Grace of God, we are the body of Christ, that is the crucial piece of our identity and we share that call, that ministry, that peace that passes understanding, that brings the world alive.
So Grace, John, everybody here, this is for you. "Be a heroic Christian but don't tell anybody." Just live it out, just like St Francis: learn to look at everyone and everything with the question, “What is this to love?" Every time you spend time and money, passion and purpose; everywhere and every way you can live and give, with people you like or love or look upon or overlook, at each open opportunity to live out your life and ministry, learn to look to see, to ask, "What is this to love?" For we are the Body of Christ.
Sunday, February 05, 2012
Sometimes I just like to note the verbs, the actions, in the lessons of the day. Today, on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, there are more than a few:
First Isaiah on the actions of God: He sits, stretches, spreads, He calls us all by name, he is great in strength, mighty in power...The everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. It's not a bad start!
Our selection from the Psalms continues this: The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts... heals the brokenhearted.. determines the stars and gives them their names...[and we are called in turn to] make melody to our God for he covers the heavens with cloud and he takes pleasure in those who fear him, who hope in his steadfast love.
That's a kind of background music to the whole creation, the selection from our basic theme song.
And in the Epistle, Paul proclaims, in his own way, the love of God that he sees in the light of Christ. Both verbs and prepositions here. He is under the law, outside the law, he becomes weak to win the weak, becomes all things to all people, "so that I might by all means save some... For the sake of the Gospel [and[ to share in its blessings."
And then towards the end of the first chapter of Mark; more significant actions, more verbs:
For Jesus is gathering a community and they're on the move: they leave the synagogue, they enter Simon and Peter's house where Jesus heals SImon's mother in law, and she rises to serve them; and after sundown all who are sick and possessed, the whole city show up, and he cures many and casts out demons and keeps this growing gathering from getting too far out of hand.
And then after that long night and before dawn Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray and his new disciples find him out and tell him that everyone is searching for him. And He says, "Let us go on..."
All these actions! Jesus comes to a particular community and opens it up to a new message and a new life; Paul stretches out to meet a wide variety of people with his understanding of a new way of receiving and responding to the reality of God's life and love in the light of Christ, with the background songs and sagas from the Hebrew scripture, of a world, a cosmos created and guided and loved and enlightened in every moment by the One who goes farther than we can imagine and comes closer than we can ken, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
So all this makes for a busy day! And my question today is, how do you, as members of this community, the good Anglicans of Mansfield, live with that, come to respond to that reality, that call for relationship: not only with God but with the community, the neighbor, the enemy, the mystery of our own deepest identity?
What does the light of God's creation, the love of Christ's life, the breath of the Spirit in our hearts, mean for the parish of Mansfield on this February morning in the season of Epiphany in 2012 AD as you prepare to welcome a new Rector and renew an established ministry?
Now, my short answer is that I don't know, and I would bet some of you don't either, nor should you. Rather, it is a time when, as Rainer Maria Rilke's writes in his "Letters to a Young Poet," where you might, "try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue." Rilke says, "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." That's not a bad way to move in the season of Epiphany as well as into the welcoming of a new priest and a new sense of call in your parish community.
It is also true to the tradition in which we stand. For the seasons of the Church year move from question to answer to question, with seasons of celebrations and solemnity, alternating times for tears and joys, and for moments of mystery and instances when new meanings come clear. Just look at the Christian year and the seasons of your own life and you can see that dance: actually it's all found in the liturgical calendar of the church.
For each of us here has had at least one Advent (and I would bet a few more than one), a time when new beginning comes to our heart and opens us up to letting new life live in us, impregnate us with a sense of God's seed sown in our hearts: a baby-beginning which changes the way we look and learn and live, changes our relationship with friends and family, with work and wisdom, with loss and gain, with what we do and where we go and how we make sense of what we think we are about.
Each of us has had that kind of new birth in our lives: new beginnings that can come in small steps taking us to new destinations, open us to be new people, taking up a newborn understanding of how we carry God's sacred word in our workaday world. Any Christmas can be a time when you give presents to others, But Christmas can also be a time when God gives you a present; Christmas can be a time when you become present to a new way of being in a new world. And when that happens, you know you are called, to share that, and that takes you to a season of Epiphany.
Again, not an easy time, this growth to living out into new realities and relationships. Listen to Paul, reaching out beyond his old understanding to connect to a community that's bigger than he ever expected, that turns out to have room for so much more than he thought he knew. Epiphany! To consent to let your little light shine that wide is not easy. It eons' for Paul, it isn't for any of us. It can break your old sense of self, your old idea of who you were and where you belong. It can break your old heart.
Go back the the Gospel. What must Simon and Andrew have felt when they saw the crowds outside the family home, when what was to be a private healing turned out to be a public gathering. This reign of God, this community to which Christ calls us, is bigger than we know, can be larger than we might like. To quote a line I fear is awe-fully true. "Christ calls us to exchange our living death for his dying life."
And that needs to be dealt with, that deep demand for rebirth that can isolate the old self, send it to the desert, give it long nights of wondering and arid days when old certainties seem to dry up like weeds. Some nights that feel like betrayal of your best beliefs, some days that feel like crucifixion, of your best hopes of your life. That is often a necessary step in following Jesus. Because God is bigger then the life we though we were called to live.
But, as Auden puts it, God's will will be done, and, if we can follow along, we can come to know Christ's new life in a wider mercy and a larger world; for this journey past Easter can open us up to new understandings, new community, a new vocabulary of compassion and connection that takes us beyond what we thought we knew of ourselves: so that we can speak immediately to people who we never knew we knew of the good news of God's love and presence. That is a part of the feast of Pentecost, this is a part of the church of Christ, And this is a lot to handle!
So what has this to do with you? Because you, as the Anglican Church of Mansfield, here in the Diocese of Wangaratta, are in a special place, a sort of tender threshold, a slender limn between possibilities, where new understandings of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost can come to life in your corporate and personal lives and journey. And that needs to be taken seriously.
So I am asking you this morning, as you prepare for a new priest and perhaps a new understanding of your individual and corporate ministries, to prepare as well for a renewed understanding of what it means to be the people of God, the Church of Christ, in this place, here and now, "to keep your eyes wide and your sympathy fresh."
So go back to the prepositions and the verbs we started with; the images and actions and relations of a God who creates a cosmos that is bigger than we can easily know, and more intricately and intimately wrought than we might perceive; a spirit that comes closer than we can easily see, intimately breathing us into deeper life and fresher beginning; and a Lord who calls us to take up and live out the rhythm of a life filled beyond belief with healing and wholeness and hope.
In the name of Christ.