Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Anxiety and Trust at Christmas

Here’s what I don’t understand about Christmas.

Why would a long journey by foot and mule in order to report to the Internal Revenue Service…
Why would a night of childbirth in a barnyard, no midwife, no epidural, no one to shoo away the dogs, the goats, where no carpenter’s sandpaper smoothed the splintery boards of the cradle…

Why would a setting like this, where everyone feels so threatened, vulnerable, and unsafe that the story requires counselors from heaven to fly about urging people not to be afraid (as if that could have helped any)…

Why would all this inspire a festival of perfection, a celebration of abundance, an enshrining of beauty, in which we knock ourselves out to get everything as just-right as we can?

Why are we arriving breathless and spent (emotionally and financially), at the end of a shopping season, rather than stepping across to the start of a season of renewal?

Why have we been worshiping at the mall and poring over our catalogues more than we’ve kept still in our sanctuaries or searched our scriptures?

Why have we ended an old year volunteering for sacrifice in the temples of perfection?

Could it be that we are anxious?

Ancient peoples like the Mayans dreaded the final days of the ending year. As astute as they were about astronomy and chronology, each year’s ending terrified them with worry that there wouldn’t be enough time given to cross over into a new year. It was as if they feared the universe might run out of breath and, just as they needed a little more to enter the future, life might inhale and take them all into oblivion.

And what did they do? They got very, very busy. They sacrificed overtime in their temples, the blood of slaves and captured enemies poured out to the gods to ensure successful passage into a new year.

So is that it? As we near the winter solstice, are we human beings programmed to hyperactive performance in order to get it right and make it across?

If so, wow, do we ever need saving. I do. I recognize enough Mayan mania in me that I think it could be an answer to why our cultural Christmas is what it is.

If you don’t buy that, if you find that theory too primitive, let me offer another possible answer. It is that we don’t know when to stop. If a little bling and material comfort are good, surely more is better? When it comes to Christmas, don’t we all have a sweet tooth, aren’t we all ready to party? Like the sofa-full of cherubs in the L. L. Bean ad, don’t we all have our head-mounted searchlights beaming-in on the fireplace tonight?

If so, we still need to be saved. One beautiful thing Christmas Eve does is to convince us that it’s time to stop. Stop the frenetic makeover and be still before the mystery of deep change that God is about tonight. Stop our orchestrating of life, admit that we’re powerless to lay down the remote, the impulse to control, for more than an hour or so: but in this hour or so, be awestruck that God invites us into a harmony not of our own making—and will we go there?

For there is where Mary and Joseph go, and though the birth belongs to Jesus, the story’s entry point for us is the experience of these two young parents. We who need saving can watch in them how a person is converted from anxiety to trust. Mary first, facing the disintegration of her world by a pregnancy too soon, and from the angel Gabriel an invitation to trust God in her present condition, as is. Joseph next, fearing that his community, his family, his village could not contain the unexplainability of life’s getting out of order—then finding, in a dream, that same counsel from heaven: live with this, find God in this, serve God by this.

There is a gift for each of us tonight in their story. Their story of how useful to God imperfections can be. Their story of how real perfection is God’s work, ours is just being useful, and always for that our first step is to trust. By their trusting, they are the heroes in this nativity story.

What is being born in you? How do you need community, family, friends, fellow-travelers, to support you and celebrate your growing, your birthing? What heroism does this call for, and what humble but breathtaking next step may be yours to take, to stop worshiping in the temples of perfection, and to enter harmony with God?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Please Be Seated

On a snowy weekend, hear the prophet Isaiah announce God’s promise that the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus, and rejoice with joy and singing. Let’s picture our crocuses beneath their snow shrouds: I’ll guess they’d rather be here than tucked into the sands of a desert. Some of us, on the other hand, might volunteer for that assignment?

And in this season of precipitation without end, hear the apostle James exhort, “Be patient, therefore, beloved… The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” Or snows, as the case may be. Snow also plays its role in preparing the ground for eventual harvest.

I can’t hear either of these great texts without accompaniment by Brahms. He set them both to absolutely gorgeous haunting music in his German Requiem. If you have a recording of that, or can borrow one, you might find it a good counter-cultural Advent experience to listen to it. I believe I can promise you a solid hour of relief from jolly muzak about Santa, White Christmasses, and mistletoe, if you will treat yourself to what Brahms heard in these texts. Not many people will be doing that, this Advent. You will be in a select minority.

A requiem deals with death, and isn’t that an odd place to go in Advent?

Well, no. Advent is a time for hearing who the Messiah is, how he comes, and what he has come to do. Prophets like Isaiah tell us the purpose of the Messiah: “’He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

I celebrated eucharist in a circle of sixteen nursing home residents last Wednesday. Right after reading to them Matthew’s story of the correspondence between John the Baptist and Jesus, I sat down in the one empty chair in their circle (as I do here, I usually stand to speak briefly after the Gospel). I had just read our Lord’s immodest but straightforward claim of having fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them…” Something in me said, “Elvin, sit down.”

Matthew’s words helped me feel the Incarnation. God’s anointed one, Jesus, enters our estate, not in soft robes and royal palaces, but against the splintery boards of a cattle trough. Powerless he comes, and though he exercises divine power by his sacramental touch, it is to give away that power to the poor and the injured and the reviled. When the powerful take offense, his powerlessness marks the mystery of his passion. I was suddenly aware that standing in a room filled entirely by people in wheelchairs was the wrong posture to keep, to consider his claim.

So, eye to eye, I reminded them what our Gospel means. That our Lord Jesus Christ has come to dwell with the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, and all who are facing death. This is by his own choice, and in response to the mission entrusted to him by Father-Mother God, and because of our need. I said, “He is in the wheelchair next to you; even more, he is in the wheelchair you’re sitting in, because he is in you.”

I could not stand to say that. Perhaps I should not be standing now. Sitting is the ancient posture for preaching, and Advent suggests why.

He comes powerless. Hotels.com has not worked for him. No family influence prevents his family from reporting all to the Internal Revenue Service. State-sponsored terrorism soon hastens this family across the border, political refugees. This is no season for standing—not on ceremony, not on principle, not in strength. It is time to sit very close to the earth that yearns to be made new, redeemed from soaking up the blood of the innocent, the off-scourings of civilization, the pollutions of the proud and the upright. It is time to sit with the patience commended by James, realizing that we cannot stand without the strength of God, and we cannot have that strength except by God’s gift, and we cannot receive the gift if we cannot sit still enough to want it, and we will not want it unless God’s Spirit stirs us up like dough in a bowl which cannot rise unless first it sits.

This is what Mary and Joseph both learn. That Mary must sit with Elizabeth her cousin, as they share their months of pregnancy. Mary must sit beneath the scornful gaze of those who judge her young and foolish. Mary must sit on a donkey on a journey that out-airports any airport story you or I can tell. Mary must bear a son.

Joseph sits with his fears, resolving to break up with his fiancée, who is unexplainably pregnant. Then Joseph must sit at the feet of an angel, who in a dream instructs him in the unexplainable.

It takes a lot of sitting, for the Messiah to be revealed. Let’s not resist the sitting we have to do. Let’s expect, from those places, even those places of powerlessness, to see and hear God.

Monday, December 3, 2007

What Advent Is For

The texts for this Sunday are Isaiah 2:1-5 (“swords into plowshares”), Romans 13:11-14 (“put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh”), and
Matthew 24:36-44 (the coming of the Son of Man).


By Friday morning, I understood that if I wanted to clear away the leaves from my yard, that was the day to do it. In light—or dark—of the forecast for the weekend, that day might be the last one in the near future without wind, and with it still in the balmy 30’s I resolved “Now is the time.”

My actual Friday was conspiring not with me, but against me. Still, by 3:00 I’d pulled away from here and landed there, in my front yard, my new Toro blower and mulcher in hand, 75 feet of extension cord tethering me to the garage outlet, like a space man on a moonwalk.

Isn’t it impressive how quickly and convincingly it gets dark, at this time of year? With half my front yard done, I’d lost the day. But not the battle. On came the outdoor lights and up went my adrenalin, nudged on by the fact that we had a dinner date to keep.

On one side of us, leaf-raking neighbors had hung up their tools and gone indoors. On the other side, neighbors had pulled into the driveway, gotten out of the car, and, peering across the yard, called out, “Peter, is that you?” It didn’t take much to imagine the unspoken question, “Isn’t it time to stop?”

That was occurring to me, as well. Working with an electric mulcher, you’ve got to keep a healthy distance between the cord and the vacuum, and I will say it’s fortunate that extension cords are brightly colored. When you mulch with this gizmo, your shoulder bag needs emptying, and in the wayback of our yard, beyond where the spotlight hits, a row of spruces stood in the way. Each time, I pretty much recalled how to avoid getting slapped by a branch… But when the last drop got made, I felt relieved. It had been dawning on me (or was it dusking on me?) that works of darkness can be dangerous.

I’ve sketched this somewhat pathetic little vignette because I’m counting on it to feel rather like the physical challenge of our short season between now and Christmas Day: piles of tasks to clear out of the way, too little time to do that in. A risk of danger if we push too hard. But also this strong sense that it’s time to do what’s expected, and we like the feeling when we succeed—when we deck the halls, play Santa, cook the goose, survive the festivities, shake the cold, and not fall apart. Oh, and be joyful. And help all around us discover the true inner meaning of Christmas, as we spend high quality time with everyone.

That should work. 24 days. On your mark, get set…

And that would not be what Advent is about.

By the way, did you hear that ABC Television has cancelled Advent this year? I saw it last night on that little banner down in the lower right of the screen, where a jovial Santa announced “25 Days of Christmas”!

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “Aren’t there 12 days of Christmas? And isn’t this Advent?”

I’m guessing that Marketing had informed Programming that if 12 days were good, 25 would be better; and why wait until later? Why not have them now?”

We’d best have an answer. We’re being asked.

To help us hear what the short season of Advent is for, we have a lesson today from St. Paul. I realize that he may not be the first person you’d imagine inviting to your holiday table, but his message is timely for a season when the hours of daylight are outnumbered by those of darkness. Paul is no stranger to the dangers of darkness, which, he says, include patterns and habits of which we are ashamed. He names a few destructive behaviors—we could list our own, very possibly including, at this time of year, two from his list, quarreling and jealousy. Whatever might be in our lists, it’s possible that our shadier behaviors might all have in common the basic darkness we share: some degree of addiction, some degree of greed, some degree of fear.

Yes, Advent is about the real dangers of our darkness. Even when the addictive personality, or the greed, or the fearing isn’t our own but belongs to someone we love, someone we live with, it’s still ours to deal with. And even when that darkness isn’t under our own roof, it is a driving force behind so much that influences us: a lot of advertising, a lot of television, a lot of what happens over the World Wide Web, and a lot that happens in our checkbooks. A lot, St. Paul would say, calls us to make provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Instead, Paul preaches, recognize how far gone our darkness is and how intimately near at hand the daylight of Jesus Christ is: Choose to live by his light. Each way you do that, each time you do that, you prepare yourself and all around you to take your part in the new creation that God is making out of the stuff and energy and created beings of this tired old world.

Whatever you and I do during Advent to prepare for Christmas Day, let’s make it also fit that new creation that God is stirring out of the stuff and spirit of ordinary life. In the gifts we buy, the parties we design, the decorating we do, the money we spend, the communicating we do with friends and family, and the reaching-out we do to provide for others, let’s imagine at least one or two ways to do it so as to help those we love better serve the new order, the new day, that conserves energy, preserves species, builds peace, loves justice, honors the poor, and respects children.

Advent, tiny among the Church’s seasons but with a powerful pull if we will feel it, is for sharpening our awareness of what God is doing, and letting that awareness shape our own doing. So let me show you some tools you might take home today, to sharpen your attention to God.

“Waiting” is the title of an Advent meditation guide for students, written, I believe, by students and published by the Higher Education Ministries Arena. Perhaps you have a college student in your family who would enjoy this. Perhaps it will speak to you and you’re not a student but you’ll take one anyway!

“Living in Hope” is the title of another booklet, Advent meditations from the writing of Henri Nouwen, a gifted spiritual guide.

“A Circle of Love: Family Devotions for Advent” by Caroline Pignat, has been given by our Youth Minister, Jacki Petrino, to each family at the Advent wreath workshop this morning. There are more copies at the foot of the aisle.

“Living Light was Born One Night” by Arden Mead is a collection of Advent devotions for children. “What Shall We Name Him?” is a family Advent book of Jesus’s names, also by Arden Mead.

And calendars are in our tool kit. There’s an array of Advent calendars, the kind you hold up to the light and open a tiny window each day, and read its verse. There’s also a cartoon calendar designed to quietly evangelize from whatever bulletin board or strategic spot you might find for it in your personal orbit in your space, this week.

I’m going to close by reading to you a sample from those first of those collections of Advent meditations, from tomorrow’s entry:

“Ah, waiting. I once read that the average American will spend some astronomical number of hours of his or her life waiting: waiting in line, waiting at stop lights, waiting in the so cleverly dubbed ‘waiting room’…

“As I look back on my Advents passed, it’s no wonder that they have skated right by me. The time between lighting the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent and singing ‘Silent Night’ on Christmas Eve has been spent waiting, but not for God.

“In this busy season, it is so difficult to think of waiting as anything more than a waste of time and preparing as anything more than energy spent, yet it is in this season that the calendar of our faith calls us to rethink the meaning of the word ‘waiting.’

“Our journey through Advent does not allow us to stand idly, arms crossed, toes tapping impatiently. Rather, it calls us into meditation and preparation to receive Christ into our lives and into this world once again. For me, this Advent presents an opportunity to tear the pages out of my ‘same old story,’ and begin anew…”

That was written by Kelly Rand, who ends the mediation with this prayer: “Teach us to wait in new ways this Advent season. Prepare us to receive your grace and respond with love and grace.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

Welcome to the Living Stone

Believe it or not, I want to start this sermon rejoicing over windows, newly installed this week in our sacristy and adjacent bathroom. They open and close! In all our recent building work, here is our first taste of what it’s like to see something new. With this, the exterior work of our Preservation Project has been completed! Yes, hooray! That represents 90% of the whole project—eventually, the caboose will be structural repairs in our lower room, a step we won’t take until we’re confident how we want to use that room—but we all agree that 90% is time to celebrate, and next Sunday that’s what we propose to do.

That will be a holiday weekend, and because it will find some of you away we’re warming up our celebration skills so as to include you today.

But does our Gospel help us? “One day people were… talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, ‘All this you’re admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.’”

We’ve already lived with our heaps of rubble during the past year when most of the stones in this building have been touched by the skilled hands of master masons, some of those stones repointed, some of them realigned, some of them replaced. We don’t need to picture them reduced to a pile of rubble today, thanks anyway. We want to picture them standing tall and secure to give God a place of praise and to give countless people a place of encounter with God in Word and prayer, in sacrament and friendship, in the shared work and play of community, in the giving and receiving of support and care.

So I’ll tell you what we did at Worship Outside the Box this morning. Instead of reading today’s Gospel, we heard Stefanie read a passage from the First Letter of Peter. It goes like this: “Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; God set it in the place of honor. Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests… God’s instruments to do God’s work and speak out for God, to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you.”

Welcome to the living Stone. Isn’t that something, that the apostle who wrote this letter found stones such a good image to represent the life and work of Jesus, and to represent the purpose of living in Christ?

So I thought it might be good to give ourselves two special images of stones that might be said to have some living nature. They’re printed on an insert to your leaflet today. Perhaps you’ve already wondered over them, “Why are they in my hands today?”

One is the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Standing 130 feet tall (33 meters, one for each year of his life), weighing 700 tons, it’s located at the peak of Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city. Made of soapstone from Sweden, it took from 1926 to 1931 to build. This Christ of the open arms was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World this summer.

The other image I’ve chosen is our own little cornerstone. Do you know where it is? According to our parish history, at 4:00 p.m. on a September day in 1895, church members, townspeople, and “boys from the College” gathered at the southwest corner of the rising church foundation, and sang some hymns. I wonder which ones they sang? “How Firm a Foundation”? “A Mighty Fortress”? “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation”? “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”?

The pioneer of St. John’s, The Rev. Dr. William Tatlock, was the guest of honor. As a Williams student, he had started a student fellowhip in 1853. A Brit, he had been missing worship with the Book of Common Prayer, so he took matters into his own hands and, on Christmas Day 1853, led Morning Prayer in the front parlor of Mrs. Starkweather’s home on North Street, the first Episcopal service ever held in this town. In 1855, he helped found St. John’s Church in North Adams.

Now move ahead—or back—to 1895, and Tatlock was then Rector of St. John’s Church in Stamford, Connecticut. (Were all Episcopal churches in the waning years of the nineteenth century named for St. John?) Having taken the train to Williamstown for the laying of this cornerstone, he spread the cement, the stone was lowered into place, and I’ll bet prayers were said and more than a few words, as well.

What could be said to have made this a living stone is described by our founding Rector, The Rev. Dr. Theodore Sedgwick. “In that stone we placed many things, a Bible, a prayerbook and a hymnal; newspapers of the day, money coins of that date, a list of the contributors and officers of the church. The box, I remember, was very full when it was sealed with solder.”

Placing a time capsule in a cornerstone is still a custom meant to say: A certain group of people, we who chose those objects, placed them here, we whose names you’ll find here; we set this place in motion. We invested ourselves in the building of what you now renew for generations yet to come.

In this great chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, the pronoun “we” has as wide an embrace as the open arms of Cristo Redentor.

When Dr. Sedgwick left St. John’s in 1900, he went to become Rector of (you guessed it) St. John the Evangelist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, a large parish that also was building a church. Wasn’t he the lucky duck? In 1902, that cornerstone was laid. It had been purchased for $200 raised by the 400 children in that church’s Sunday School and other children’s programs with which Sedgwick had become involved in St. Paul. (Those were days when many families were too poor to send their children even to public schools, and churches took measures to provide basic education.) That was a large sum in what was then a poor community—and the children led the way.

A cornerstone represents sacrifice. Civilization has come far in some respects. In some ancient cultures, the foundation of a new temple could not be laid without the ceremonial sacrifice of a human life. It took blood to create a living stone, they thought.

Wait a minute. Don’t we believe that, too? That “living stone” in I Peter is the crucified Christ whose life-blood was poured out for us all. It’s those three little words “for us all” that set the blood of Cristo Redentor apart from all blood-thirsty religion, past and present. His self-offering of his own life ends all justification of violence; many Christians would say that includes attempts to justify war. Ended are all claims that God requires the spilling of blood.

As the Book of Common Prayer says it, elegantly and clearly, “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption;” --Cristo Redentor—“who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”

But this gift has to be received, has to be taken in to fill the hollow of our cornerstone.

The Christian doctrine of redemption may trouble us for what it says about God, that a parent’s love of a child could somehow include allowing, even willing, the death of that child in order to fulfil the expectations of the parent. Many a former Christian has walked away from doctrine as dense as this. Many an honest struggling Christian trips over doctrine as demanding as this.

No accident that in I Peter the apostle says that this living stone, rejected by some, while God chooses it to become the cornerstone, for many becomes a skandalon, the Greek word for a stumbling block.

But isn’t the unjust death of Cristo Redentor the event in which God says “Enough!” to the old ways, the old blood lusts and blood-lettings? Isn’t it there on the trash heap of Calvary that God begins what the prophet Isaiah heard promised, the creation of new heavens and a new earth? Even as Jesus’s blood drops into the dust of the old earth, a new age is opened just as wide as those arms above Rio.

“Come to me, all whose labors in this unjust world wear you down, and I will give you rest. I will build you up. Take up your ability to trust me, and you will find courage to end the cycle of hurting and destroying that has no place in a world being made new.”

This Good News, passionate for justice, compassionate towards all, committed to truth, determined for peace, this Good News of the open-armed Christ needs sanctuaries made with hands only to hold Christ’s people long enough, often enough, deeply enough to form in them living sanctuaries built of hope and love and faith.

Here, hallowed long by the spiritual encounters of so many, the stones themselves could sing, if we were to forget how. They’ve called us to invest ourselves, many of us sacrificially, to free this house of prayer to stand secure and open, wide open, for another century.

We have begun our thanksgiving for the grace by which we’ve accomplished an enormous task. We have learned to open our arms wide to welcome the challenge that was truly ours. We understand those hard words we heard our Lord say in Luke, that “As for these things that we see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We do not need to be convinced about that. Stones fall. Temples decay. Even buildings we take for granted as “there forever” will not be.

And we know why we’ve done the work we’ve been given to do. As people of sacrament, we know that things we touch, when touched by faith and hope and love, become outward and visible signs, means by which inner and spiritual grace is given and received. The story of our restoring this building is just as truly the story of God restoring us, God building in us a sanctuary, building of us a people open to the world.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Big on Law, Low on Principle

This sermon refers to Job 19:23-27a and Luke 20:27-38


A society organized and built on the basis of law and justice may tell two kinds of powerful stories with unique fascination. One we might call the story of the impossible possibility, the search for the perfect catch in the law, a form of parody that causes astonishment and dark laughter because it’s so ridiculous-- while also cutting to the heart of what matters. Jesus tells this kind of story today. The other is the story of when justice miscarries and an innocent man suffers. Our first lesson today gives us a famous slice of that kind of story, the stymieing story of Job. Both kinds of story shake our ordinary sense of justice, take us right to the edge of our imagination, and require that a legal mind give way to larger truth. Both stories show how insistently ancient Israel was organized and built on the basis of law and justice. And both speak to the question raised by the Roman poet Horace not many years before the birth of Christ: Quid leges sine moribus? “Of what use are laws, if we lack principle?”

Some very bright men come to Jesus today and tell a made-up story. Made for television, we might say—what a series this would be, “My Seven Husbands”. But that would be a different take on the story than our first-century clever men would have had; they couldn’t have cared less about the experience and rights of the woman. More and more, we are principled about the equality of women and men. That was not a first-century concept, though it was a passion of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is happening here is that smart legal minds are trying to back Jesus into a corner of impossibility. They are religious men who believe in God, but God, they say, is bound to obey the same laws that God has in place for us. St. Luke our story-teller implies at the start that these religious lawyers are about to confront Jesus with a test case intended to put him in the wrong. This is one of several times in the Gospels when people high on law and low on principles try to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against him—turning their encounter into a trial where they can catch him on cross-examination, get him to express a view that violated the laws of Israel or, even more dangerously, the laws of the Roman Empire.

They have heard enough about Jesus to know that he preaches a dangerous message about a Kingdom of God laying claim on daily life. To them, that sounds as if God might want to do something unexpected, even revolutionary, and they believed God would never do business that way. They have heard that Jesus speaks about angels serving the purposes of God and the needs of mortals, and about new life beyond the reach of death—and they thought all this was nonsense, because they could not find it anywhere in the law that a spiritual world could break in upon the physical, or that a person’s soul could live beyond the death of the body.

So they set up the case we heard: one after another, seven brothers follow the pattern of marrying this woman, then dying, leaving no children. Finally, the woman also dies—is it any wonder? If there is a resurrection beyond death, they want to know (but notice they aren’t principled enough to truthfully say they mean “if”—they speak as if they do believe there will be a resurrection), whose wife will the woman be?

Deeply committed to the rule of law, these men base their impossible possibility on a law that Moses taught. It’s found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”

These religious lawyers agree that this is the only way a person lives beyond death: through his or her descendants. The way they see it, the right and legal answer to their question is: After death, we have no being except through our children. So this woman is no man’s wife because this woman is no longer.

I hear Jesus replying, “You are partly right, and enormously wrong. She is no man’s wife because marriage is only for this age of our earth-bound life. But if this woman were to step into the new age I am here to open to all, she would be so beyond death and so beyond all the bondings and ownings and dyings of daily life that she would be known not as someone’s wife but as who she is as God knows her. She will be a child of the resurrection. I will agree with you that God is not God of the dead, but of the living—not, as you suppose, because death limits God but because to God all the dead are alive, and intimately known.”

So Jesus gives his examiners a lesson about principle. This is an echo of what may be his signature lesson: when asked which was the most important of the laws of Israel, you remember his answer: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Driving principles of his preaching: love’s primacy, love’s inseparability as it flows through its own holy trinity of God, self, and neighbor, love requiring radical equality, the love of God giving human love the courage and power to be all it can be.

We know that Jesus did not invent these principles. Christianity does not claim that he invented them, but that he embodied them, uniquely, and by his Spirit we who live in him are made able to embody love in his way. While our Christian faith roots us in Jesus’s embodying of divine principle, our faith does not limit us, does not restrict us from admiring and appreciating other embodyings of love when we see them for what they are.

We get just a glimpse of one today, as four and a half verses remind us of Job. To hear his whole story is to watch colliding principles that attempt to explain the ways of God in the case of an innocent man whose suffering presents a miscarriage of justice, not just in his misfortunes but in what his very religious friends make of his misfortunes, how they slip from helpless silence into ill-advised blaming of Job for winding up in the plight he’s in.

If justice hadn’t been so important in ancient Israel, we’d never have had a story like Job’s. It’s for a sermon another day to go into that story, but let’s notice one thing: this is a story about an accused man who will not confess guilt. To explain away the awful things that have happened to him (the deaths of his children, wiping out his name; the loss of his home and wealth, a terrible disease of his skin—truly a dreadful list of impossible possibilities), to explain how this could befall a good man, his friends accuse him of somehow deserving it. Another case of legalistic minds run amok, unprincipled by love.

It is just when their toxic words bring him to the edge of final despair that out of Job erupts this explosion of hope that we heard today. “I know that my defender lives, and that at the last he will arise upon the earth—after my skin finally falls off, as it’s doing even now—But I would see God from my flesh, whom I would see for myself; my eyes would see, and not a stranger.”

Those words have been claimed by the Church and help open the rite of Christian burial. By the zeal of our theologians in the first centuries, the full embodying of love and justice in Jesus Christ have brimmed over to flow back and fill the scriptures of ancient Israel with meaning they didn’t have then. To say that Job speaks of what we mean by resurrection is unlikely. But what’s clear is that he would not give up on God and by that determination dares to believe that God will not give up on him.

And it takes that gritty an interpretation of Job’s words to ensure that we appreciate how he embodies love. He represents a sharp legal mind no less than Jesus’s examiners in Luke. The big difference is that his physical and emotional sufferings have shaken loose his ordinary sense of justice, brought him to the very edge of his imagination, and required that he step into the realm of spirit and truth. While his whole story is being told as if it were a trial being heard in a courtroom, his confrontation with God as the likelihood of death draws near causes Job to want help, and he imagines various heavenly figures who might come to his aid: an arbitrator, a witness, a defender. But in the end, as we heard today, nothing will satisfy Job except direct access to God. He says, to himself and to his smart but unprincipled friends, the same thing Jesus says to his examiners: Only God’s intimate knowledge of me can adequately judge and define and value me.

Can you hear the long-held detainees at Guantánamo saying this? I can.

Can you hear hard-working illegal aliens in this country saying similar words after being wrenched from their families in one state and driven far away to another for deportation hearings? I can.

Does a prisoner interrogated by water-boarding reach beyond himself with words like, “I know that my defender lives.. my life falls away, even now I would see God who alone knows how to see me.”

We are at war with more than terrorism. We are in collision with our own principles. Like ancient Israel, our society is built upon law and justice. Like ancient Israel, we must pay attention to our own stories of justice miscarried. With Horace, we must ask how laws can guide us if we lack principle. And with Jesus find divine principle announcing God’s sovereign defense of the dignity and value of every person, divine principle asserting what it means to live a just life.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Stewardship the World Needs

This sermon refers to Isaiah 1:10-18 and Luke 18:1-8.

The afternoon before our first frost last week, I harvested the final armful of zinnias. Bright with the intensity of summer’s colors, they’re no longer sticking their tongues out in the garden, daring Jack Frost to shut them down—but they make quite the Last Hurrah, and it’s November, for heaven’s sake.

Two days after that first frost, I removed the screen and replaced the storm inset at our front door. No more slapping shut of a screen door—the summer percussion section at our house has been silenced. It’s a sound we rather like, and we hope it doesn’t bug the neighbors… but now that door closes with the whoosh we need to keep winter out. And with that, I know the season has changed.

So does the cat. His morning run is down to ten minutes now. “Enough of this,” he mutters, as he bounds in.

Cycles of death and rebirth surround us and sing to us, all year around. The Christian Year declares the calendar year dead and gone near the start of December, when Advent will blow the last fluff out of the milkweed, and we start hearing how a shoot will rise out of the stump of Jesse. On the heels of the winter solstice, Christmas will kindle the soul with Incarnation, even while it exhausts the flesh when we pursue the wrong spirits. Then, well before our northern gardens even think of awakening, the Church Year will aim us into the Passion of Jesus Christ for the world, and reach its climax in our yearly renewal by immersion into the mystery of his life and death and new life in Spirit and truth.

As if reminding us of two thousand years of experience at this gracious cycling, the liturgical year right about now opens the curtain on the full cast of characters who have gone before us in the Way of Christ. All the saints, all the souls, all the children and women and men so centered on God that Jesus knows them as his people, his friends, his apostles (not “fossils”, as one of our young members charmingly thought they were called, but apostles, people who worship God in how they live their lives)—many of them rather eccentric by the standards of their peers. Which explains why so many did not die peacefully in their beds, but harshly in collision with the very world they sought to serve.

Let us not be fossils! Though wars have been fought over possessing the bones of the saints, there’s nothing edifying about having the remains of even the very holiest of them. By contrast, saints and apostles and all God’s children who have left a mark on their world have done so by the intensity of their faith, the good cheer of their hope, and the bright colors of their love. They are the zinnias of God. Even in the last hurrah of their deaths, they make us ask “How’d they do that?” even while we know the answer is “God.”

The Church goes so far, in her creeds, to say that the children of God are so freed by God’s Spirit and truth that they’re always humming a tune that we can hear (if we listen), everywhere still touching hearts and minds and wills through their ever-told stories (if we listen), and still at work—or is it now, for them, at play?—in that great endless chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, which theologians call the Communion of Saints.

Though that chain is endless, it is that way because people of God like you and me choose, one by one, to extend its influence in their world. That is an important message to give on Stewardship Sunday, isn’t it? A call to purposely center ourselves on God yet more fully, however eccentric a choice that may seem by the standards of the very world we would serve.

And there’s Zaccheus in our Gospel, helping us hear the call. His story explodes any claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t talk about money. Zaccheus puts forward an entire economic plan for social justice—50% of his income to the poor, fourfold restitution if he has defrauded anyone even without knowing it—and Jesus approves.

Yes, maybe it helps that Zaccheus is rich. Perhaps that’s part of what makes him bold to even have a plan. On the other hand, that hardly explains his enthusiasm, does it? You and I are privileged to live in a culture that values philanthropy. I mean voluntary giving. Would that we could point to federal foreign aid, a shamefully low percentage of our gross national product, or to federal domestic assistance, on the skids for years now—but while we won’t find inspiring evidence there, the voluntary giving I mean is the kind that you and I exercise in stewarding our own resources. Americans are creating a culture that affirms giving—but, even so, do Warren Buffett or the Gateses give 50% of their income?

It isn’t just because Zaccheus is rich that he’s on a roll. It’s that he has received through the love of God in Jesus Christ the very powers that his economic plan displays. He has received from Jesus the reality of inclusion, the experience of restoration, and the promise of salvation. Before Jesus shook his tree, Zaccheus was a chief tax collector, rich but shunned as a collaborator with Roman imperial rule, possessed of a good heart but unconvinced that he had a place in the heart of God. Sliding down that sycamore, Zaccheus stood on new ground.

What did Jesus do for him? On the surface, all he did was invite himself to lunch at Zaccheus’s house. But instantly, the action went deeper as the crowds watching all this mutter their verdict about Jesus (“Look, he’s no judge of character, is he?”) and their judgment on Zaccheus (“He is a sinner.”)

By going to the chief tax collector’s house, Jesus makes of it a judgment hall, a courtroom. He is not the judge. He is the attorney for the defense, Zaccheus’s advocate just by being there.

What sounds like self-defense is also Zaccheus responding to the muttered judgment of the crowds. “Yes, I am a sinner, Lord: but I will give half of what I own to the poor whom I know you champion, Jesus. I will join you there, even if the poor may be among those attacking me. If it is discovered that I defrauded anyone, I will repay fourfold.” That would be way beyond the most stringent demands of the law of Israel.

Zaccheus gives Jesus his resolve as response to the honor Jesus has shown him by his visit. This is not an attempt to bribe the judge. Jesus is not the judge. He is the advocate who champions not only the poor, but all who want a place at his table of radical equality, all who want to turn the tables on the cult of luxury and the culture of violence.

So Jesus announces to all within earshot, “Today salvation has come to this house… I have come not to judge, but to save the world… to seek out and save the lost, both poor and rich… to save households from the burden of unyielding poverty and to save households from the burden of unyielding wealth.”

Today, one of those has yielded. A chief tax collector in charge of certified public accountants trained to track every penny, every denarius, announces his plan to give half of what he owns, and from his own money restore fourfold any false claims he levied on behalf of imperial Rome. That is the arithmetic of grace.

In stark contrast, we hear today about the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah. And the subject isn’t sex. It’s the relationship among money, religion, and justice.

The words are an oracle of the prophet Isaiah, rumbling down to us from 800 years before Luke told his story about Zaccheus. Isaiah’s words are a perfect foil for setting-off Luke’s story. His words are important and challenging to hear on a parish’s stewardship Sunday.

In a nutshell, Isaiah reports God’s extreme displeasure at the religious practices of Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re doing what they were brought up to do: killing bulls, lambs, and goats by a hammerblow to the head to stun them, then slitting their throats so both their blood and their meat could be offered in sacrifice to God, an ancient form of worship which was to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah—as to all the people of Israel at that time—old-time religion. You’ll recall that it was still alive and kicking in the first century, when Jesus came on the scene.

Scholars of religion tell us that the purpose of this kind of sacrifice was for the nation to get God on their side, to get God the judge to rule in their favor, and to keep God on their side by maintaining sacrifice upon sacrifice.

Messy as it sounds, it all became a cult of luxury, religion aimed at protecting success. “It’s part of our standard of living to offer to God what is expected, a goat, a lamb, a bull.” A bribe. God, we’ll do this for you if you’ll do this for us, crown our society with success, keep us Number One.

According to Isaiah, God says, “No, thanks! Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings like these is futile.. I am weary of bearing the burden of your festivals and assemblies. If you keep this up, I will hide my eyes and block my ears. Yours hands are bloody. Wash them. Then go to your room. You’re grounded.”

No, in fact that’s not God’s way. Instead are these wonderful trusting empowering words, “Come now, let us argue it out.” This is a Jewish God, and it’s not just rabbis who debate. All God’s children get the opportunity to learn in volley back and forth with God whose gifts are patience, inclusion, restoration, and salvation.

The religion God values, the stewardship the world needs, centers on these imperatives: Cease to do evil… Learn to do good… Seek justice… Rescue the oppressed… Defend the orphan… Plead for the widow.

Religion that advocates for justice, that promotes radical equality. This prophetic standard shows us where Jesus comes from, puts Zaccheus in the long chain of prophetic stewardship, and links him to the communion of saints.

How will you extend the influence of that great chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, in your world?

How will we ensure that we aren’t worshipping at the altars of a cult of luxury and a culture of violence?

Will we let the saints—today especially Zaccheus and Isaiah—speak to us about justice?

Today, this week, how will you welcome the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ to shape within you a passion and practice of radical equality, at home around your dining table, here in your church, in your relationships at work and school, in the world of your influence?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Word to the Chain Gang

This sermon refers to II Timothy 2:8-15 and Luke 17:11-19




I picture those ten diseased men appearing over the brow of a hill as if they were a chain gang.

Maybe I’m free-associating with St. Paul’s image in his letter to young Timothy, his protégé. Paul writes from a jail cell, where he is “chained like a criminal.” He is in chains because when he has shown people Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, some who have seen and heard this preaching of good news have received it as bad news. You could say that they were chained, bound to defending The Way Things Are. They were not free to imagine and welcome the kinds of change Paul’s Jesus might bring into their world. And so they locked Paul in chains, to silence him.

I think that’s where I get this sense that our ten lepers are in chains. A disease, leprosy, binds them tightly together. Each of these men has had to leave home and job and village because fear and custom and law dictate that’s The Way Things Are. These ten have found each other wandering across the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee, and they have formed, one by one, a human chain. To call them “family” isn’t accurate—by the end of the story, nine are rushing home to all they used to call familiar—but for the time being, this binding-together of ten lives is the best they can make of The Way Things Are.

If you want to read a powerful testament to this kind of binding in the face of sheer disaster, read Dave Eggers’s novel What Is the What. That stunning novel carries you back and forth between two story lines. One is now in the life of a young Sudanese, one of the Lost Boys, who has resettled in a big American city and valiantly makes the best of his new life in a culture that simultaneously does and does not treat him well. The other story line, which he is reliving with all the urgency of post-traumatic stress, is about then—the other-worldly desert death march of the Lost Boys when mere children saw and suffered what children should never have to even imagine. They formed virtually a human chain as they crossed the desert, living links falling off in death, new ones joining-on as fresh wanderers crossed their path. And now, years later, that chain has been transformed into a live international virtual network of Lost Boys keeping in touch with one another by cellphone and e-mail. This is a book worth reading, What Is the What.

Now back to our chain gang. They sound like a chorus. I can’t help feeling a dark humor at work here—I mean, do they have it choreographed, that they’re calling out to Jesus in unison? Wouldn’t you expect ten desperate men to sound more like the trading pit at the New York Stock Exchange than a scripted chorus? But Luke says they’re “keeping their distance,” because that’s the way things have to be. And they’re smart. They know they have to make themselves not just heard but understood, and they’ve been together long enough to know how to coordinate their efforts. This is a moment of life and death: they have to be heard. So one of them yanks the chains, leads the way, sets the pace—and soon there’s a rhythm: Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

This is liturgy, simple basic corporate prayer. These ten are a minyan. We should see in them the Church. And given the way this story goes, that’s a scary thought.

Hear again what does happen. Jesus sees them, and, with absolutely no drama, no other engagement with them, he directs them to go and show themselves to the priests. Without argument, they go—and by the time they arrive at the temple their skin is clean and clear. They’re standing before the priests healed. Jesus has sent them there because the ancient law requires priestly certifying of a leper’s remission before that person is allowed to return to the original community. And by the time they stand in that place, their disease has been stopped dead in its tracks.

That noise you just heard is their chains, falling to the ground.

What happens next is the defining moment. One of them, seeing his skin and his health and his freedom restored, turns back, praising God with a loud voice. I wonder if he was the one who led the chorus.

If so, he does no longer. The nine are not following. They have, to use the right word, split. Each is racing back to home. Who knows how long it’s been since they’d seen wives, children, parents—since they’d held and hugged those they love, been held and hugged. Can we blame them?

But for this one fellow, the first stop is at Jesus’s feet. For him, home is where Jesus is.

And he was a Samaritan, we are told. He was from across the border.

Were not ten made clean? Jesus asks. Was none of (the other nine) found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?

Exactly. He’s found. The others are lost. No longer chained to each other, the nine can be said to still be chained, to a prison wall stouter than The Way Things Are. They’re bound to The Way Things Used To Be.

No one can blame them. They’ve broken no law. By going to the priests, they’ve kept to the letter of the law. But they’ve missed the point of it all. Jesus healed them to free them, and they took only some of the gift, accepted freedom from their burden, but not freedom for a new life centered in God.

Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. You could call that a commissioning. You could see this moment as the making of an apostle. And what tells Jesus that this fellow is ready to take on the world? His gratitude, his embracing the gift of freedom to move beyond law to love, his loud spontaneous thankfulness to God.

Do Jesus’s words suggest that the other nine have not been made well? They’re certified as clean, but are they well? Perhaps Jesus can’t tell, because he can’t see and hear and feel their faith, as he can this man’s. For sure, he can’t sense their gratitude, for they just aren’t there.

Now you see why I think it’s scary to see these ten men representing the Church. You may have thought that a silly idea anyway, but I still think a case can be made for it. I mean, it could have worked. Had all ten caught fire, that would have given Jesus at least as much personpower as he could get out of the twelve even on a good day.

But only one in ten of those who are cleansed and loved and blessed and freed by Jesus choose God, choose to bring Jesus with them into their worlds.

Does that represent the church? If so, are you content with that? Do you expect that God is content with that? Can God’s work in the world be carried out if nine out of ten of us are content with the Way Things Are? Can one out of ten get nine others coordinated and in chorus enough to get the church unchained from The Way Things Used to Be?

Well, the beauty of this little story is, in fact, the power of one. The Lord who told you last week about the power of faith the size of a mustard seed tells you this week that one grateful person, one person willing to turn that gratitude into praise and that praise into action, will find one new step to take in this one new week to choose God, to bring Jesus into his or her world, to love, to represent a church that insists, with St. Paul, that the Word of God is not chained. And to insist that we, also, not be chained to walls of our own making.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

God's Work, Our Work

One of many reasons I love the Gospels is that they show so boldly the readiness of our Lord Jesus Christ to contradict his disciples. I’m talking about those moments in the disciples’ life together with Jesus when they said “The sky is blue,” and he replied, “No, it’s magenta—why can’t you see it?”

These are never dull moments. Electricity is snapping in the air between Jesus and his merry gang, at these moments. Like the time when two of them, let’s call them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, nudged their mumsy to go ask Jesus to set them on his right side and his left, in glory. She obliged them, but Jesus would not.

Or that time when a bunch of them huddled like trigger-happy security experts and proposed to Jesus that they punish inhospitable Samaritans who refused to feed and house the gang from Galilee, calling down fire from heaven to deliver shock and awe. Jesus looked straight into their wild eyes and says, “Let it not be so among you.”

Today’s contradiction feels less charged, but let’s not be fooled. The apostles ask him to increase their faith. They want a truckload, and they want it now. They are not ready for what they hear. They want St. Michael and All Angels lighting their dark night like the aurora borealis. They want Joan of Arc, leading the charge. They want a touch of the rapture, with all the theological cooing that will convince them that they won’t be left behind. Instead, they get actual revelation, actual God-in-their faces revelation. And it’s a lesson about seeds and servants.

Julian of Norwich, 14th-century English mystic, was familiar with actual revelation. She wrote down sixteen revelations of divine love, showings of God, and pouring out of these pages is a religion of joy, an understanding that there is no anger in God (anger, she says, is a human franchise, not a divine one), and her theology rejoices in the motherhood, as well as the fatherhood and sonship, of God. Whether the apostles would have agreed with her, I cannot say; but they would find in her revelations a truckload of faith.

Yet Julian asks the question, “Yes, but how does it come about, this faith?” For her, actual revelation comes not in the expected way, but in the unexpected. Here is a very simple modern translation from the Middle English of what she wrote about one of her showings:

“And in this the Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. . .In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it."

Let me read that to you in another translation that keeps the flavor of the old language:

“Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.”

Lovely as that is, I’m going back to the simpler version. God shows Julian all that matters: that the God who made us loves us and preserves us. There is the holy trinity in a nutshell, literally. It is all the apostles need to face what’s frightening them, challenging them, overwhelming them. It’s all that we need, to face what’s frightening and challenging and overwhelming us.

What was having that effect on them? In general, it was their mission, the task, the work Jesus had sent them out to do. Notice that Luke doesn’t call them disciples here; he calls them apostles—a term we don’t expect to hear until his second volume, The Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Disciples sit and learn. Apostles are sent to work. In Luke’s Gospel, that has already happened, about eight chapters ago, so he’s showing us that the Christian life takes students of Christ and turns them into agents of Christ by the divine Spirit St. Paul tells us about today, “not…a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” that causes Christians to show Jesus to people, sometimes through how they handle suffering, and always through how they rely on the power of God. And how they recognize revelation in the hazelnuts they handle, day in and day out.

Apostles first have to be disciples. No, they always have to be disciples, learning to recognize actual revelation when they see it. And disciples have to become apostles, or else they turn to mush. Or worse, in retreating from being apostles, they become the opposite of who Jesus needs them to be—and then he must contradict them.

That’s happening today in our portion of Luke. What we haven’t heard can help us understand.

We all know the three most important things about real estate: location, location, location. Remember that, whenever you consider a little piece of scripture: the three most important things are context, context, context. Today’s portion may show you the house, but last Sunday’s—and what comes between—shows you the land it sits on.

Last Sunday, Lazarus, a beggar, is a little person who we come to see as having a great claim upon the heart of God, and so of the Church. Between that portion and today’s, Jesus teaches his disciples that if they cause a little one like Lazarus (but any little one) to stumble, they’re sunk as apostles (literally—“it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”) Then he tells them that disciples have got to confront one another with the truth as they work and live together, boldly contradict one another so that they keep to the truth, and when one repents, the other must forgive—even if the same person needs forgiving seven times a day.

Context shows us specifically why the disciples asked the Lord to increase their faith. They were trying to live by Jesus’s marching orders, but found them hard, painful, and scary.

“Increase your faith? You make it sound like you want to inflate yourselves with laughing gas,” I hear Jesus answer them. “Or earn a degree in righteousness. Or find a short cut to getting it right, as if what we’re talking about here is all about you and your goodness. It isn’t. It’s about God—and the world.”

And then, in the second part of this little Gospel, Jesus contradicts the kind of false hope that comes from fear and worry and exhaustion. “No, your life with me is not about getting everything right so you get promoted up from being a servant. The call to be my people in the world is the call to serve. Get used to it. Rejoice in it.”

And, he might have added, learn through it, learn through this call to serve, to value little things.

So he gets them thinking about seed. Small, but mighty—if we’re to judge by what dandelions do in our lawn, and forget-me-nots in our garden. And the message? If we want a seed to grow, we know that to do. We plant it in the light, we let it go, down into the earth where it will fall apart. What follows is a mystery way beyond our comprehension, the wonder of germination and growth. That is God’s work. But it takes the right care—watering, feeding, weeding—and that is our work.

What else can we say about seed? Being a disciple is seed for being an apostle. Being an apostle is like sending seeds into the wind, seeds of friendship and leadership and witness and service. Those seeds sprout and grow, and a new generation of disciples rises.

So let’s see if I can sum this up. The disciples are panicking, flipping out, overwhelmed by the demands of their calling. “We just can’t DO it, Jesus! Increase our faith!”

“This isn’t about you,” he replies. “Your calling is from God. God made you. God loves you. God preserves you.”

“Oh!"

"That’s great!"

"Wonderful..."

"Whew, for a while there…"

"Oh, so I can just…”

And in that moment, Jesus is reminded that this is his gang that can’t shoot straight. He contradicts his apostles once again: “This good news about God frees you for your calling. It doesn’t excuse you from the work. For there to be more disciples, you must be apostles! It’s a great endless chain of receiving and giving and receiving and giving that I have come to ensure on this earth. It all depends on God. And it all depends on you.”

Monday, September 24, 2007

Escorting the Poor to the Front of the Line

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Rats. There goes the Episcopal Church, to hell in a shopping basket.

“You cannot serve God and Money.” That’s how the New International Version of the Bible puts it, with a capital M on Money. I think that translation moves us closer to the mark.

It’s like Luke to say that. You know that both he and Matthew bring us our Lord’s rich sermon, “on the mount” in Matthew and “on the plain” in Luke. They differ in how they represent the teaching of Jesus, differ more than subtly. Where Matthew’s Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Luke’s Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Matthew spiritualizes the message. Luke does not. I would say that Luke politicizes the message. For him, it’s not the poor in spirit who move from last place to first place in God’s reign of justice and truth: it’s the poor who are escorted to the front of the line, and in that movement the dividing line is turned into a unifying circle. And there, says Luke, is the church’s task: to escort the poor to the front of the line, and so to change the very shape of life. He doesn’t say this just once or twice in his Gospel, but over and over.

This is why I think his lesson is, “You cannot serve God and Money.” Wealth is a broad concept. Wealth embraces all that our senses delight in: freedom to enjoy hiking these rolling hills, to splash through the surf at your favorite beach… Wealth is Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, and Mavis Staples deep-singing Gospel… Wealth is leaning into the precious circle of family and friends; wealth is also creative solitude; and wealth is the new life we find, and that finds us, in Jesus Christ by the embrace of the Spirit of God. In all these examples, wealth is shared, it is common wealth. And as Christians we are committed to stewarding such wealth, to adding to its store, and to its liberal distribution. We believe that we can serve both God and common wealth, that we serve God through our stewarding of wealth such as this. Money is part of it, often required for it, but is not itself the deepest, truest treasure.

We are by temperament drawn to Matthew: we understand his Jesus, who teaches, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We need Luke, whose Jesus teaches us that the way we use what we have shows who we are serving.

And while we’re thinking about Matthew saying one thing and Luke saying another, let’s recognize what that says about the Bible: the Word of God is always greater, truer, finer, and more than the various words of one text or another. We do justice to the Bible when we pay attention to its own internal differences and when we’re patiently open to the big picture that is being painted.

So today Luke takes his brushes and paints for us us the parable of the dishonest manager. We get to listen in on how he keeps his books, juggles his accounts, gives us an ancient example of insider trading and runs his own backyard version of Enron.

And talk about internal differences—between the story and the comments that follow, we could spend hours in these fourteen verses of Luke and feel increasingly like we’d entered a hall of mirrors. This text is right up there with “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,”—brought to you just two Sundays ago also by St. Luke the Evangelist.

Remember, we’re looking for Good News! That’s what “evangel” means. So where do we hear it in this story about dishonest management?

It’s actually a story about deciding what you’ll stake your life on.

That makes it worthy to be heard as we baptize André Alan Horton, who is seven months into the adventure of his life. He stakes his life—instinctively, not by decision—on Amy and Alan, his Mom and Dad, who do management for him, especially during this highly portable stage of infancy. With each month and year, he moves toward the time when he will take on management himself. By what we do today, we want to prepare him for management. What we do today, baptizing him, opens to him the commonwealth of the family of God, gives him his place at the table of sharing, his toolkit for building a faith and an ethic, and his invitation to learn how to take up the task of escorting the poor to the front of the line, and so create circles of transformation.

As we renew our own baptismal covenant today, every question and every answer will urge us to decide to stake everything on God’s love and wisdom and purpose.

The shrewd worldly unrighteous dishonest manager (the Greek word translated “dishonest” means all those things) recognized that, having been caught red-handed, he had just a short time to make lemonade out of his lemons—and so he stakes everything on a decision born out of his shrewdness.

If only, Luke’s Jesus seems to be saying, If only my disciples are as eager and as ingenious in their attempts to take care of the poor, to wage peace, to cherish creation, then they will succeed in what I have come to do. They will turn the tables I too have overturned, scattering the proud in their conceit, and lifting up the lowly.

I’ll confess. What I’ve just done is to jump over all the interesting stuff to highlight the bottom line. That’s because we have a baptism to get on with, and André isn’t yet into textual criticism.

But lots can be read out of, and into, this story. One thing I notice is that all throughout there run two messages. One is right in our face: Jesus is not reluctant to talk about money, to use it to convey his message. We may expect religion to divide sacred from secular, and if so we’d probably locate money on the secular side; but Jesus is drawing money across that line, claiming it as a tool for God. He knows the human heart, and how close it lies to its treasure. In fact, his Gospel, his Good News, speaks more about money, wealth, and poverty than it does about sex, worship, good manners, and all the many other preoccupations that the Church loses itself in. His freedom, his justice, his compassion run so deep that they pass right through a person’s check register and on to the heart and soul and mind and strength.

A second message is more subtle: Everything we have is really not our own. It’s on loan, for a while, and life is all about what we do with it as a tool for loving God and for loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

That juggling the manager did with the books: Did he gouge his former employer, redistributing the owner’s goods to the debtors? Or would a first-century audience have said, “No—he chopped off his own commission! The owner got back his own, but the middle man sacrificed his own plump share.” Still others might have said, “Wait—he’s lobbing off the interest! Only he knows what the Big Man tacks on for interest—but we know it’s forbidden in Deuteronomy and Leviticus to charge interest at all, so the owner’s getting only what he deserves.”

That last interpretation ought to make us chuckle. Follow laughter to find Good News. Has the manager been so clever that, in addition to providing good will for himself, he has also put his former boss in a position where the man cannot argue with the outcome because it is a righteous outcome? Have the tables been turned on the rich man, covering him with the goodness of the Torah, the Word of God obeyed—and all he can do is let it stand, quietly saying to the manager, “Touché!”

The message is not so subtle: we do not own with lasting grasp the things of this world. We have them on loan. What we have, for a while, is the power to use them.

Jesus is saying: The critical moment is here. The Kingdom of God is near. History is being cracked open by the hand of God reaching to the need of humanity. The old ways no longer serve the new creation. Will you stake everything on the way of the world and fight over every red cent and inch of land and power to control—or will you seize the moment of opportunity to make provision for the future on God’s terms, securing your place in the new order by using what you have shrewdly, escorting the poor to the front of the line and by so doing be transformed by your service?

Our Bolivian medical missioners this summer learned and felt the power and the powerlessness of serving at tables that turn like this. Our generation will see more and more the wisdom of what the ancient rabbis taught: “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.”

The way of the world says, “Use—or be used.”

Oddly enough, Jesus agrees. We use our riches, or they master us. Sharing is divine: by it we extend the giving of God, and build a common wealth.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Global Belonging

What is the challenge we’re called to rise and meet?

Our eleven friends on the Bolivian medical mission trip are facing challenges today, what was to be their second day in Cochabamba, altitude 8392 feet, three-fifths of a mile higher than Denver. I say it was to be their second day there. They left here early Friday morning, and it was going to take four flights (three transfers) to arrive in the Garden City of Bolivia, eighteen hours of air travel…

But yesterday afternoon this e-mail arrived: “Due to a delay in the American Airlines flight out of Miami, we arrived in Lima too late for our Bolivian connection. The upshot is, we are staying in a luxury hotel in Lima recuperating for the next leg, delayed by one day. Not so bad, except that due to missing our Santa Cruz-Cochabamba flight and the lack of available seats on that route, we’ll have to take a bus tomorrow instead of the plane. Twelve hours instead of forty-five minutes, but I suppose we’ll get to acclimatize to the altitude gradually. We’ll update to the blog soon (www.medicalmissiontrip.blogspot.com).”

I don’t know firsthand what the first couple of days’ experience is likely to be in one of these short-term clinics, but I’ll bet the learning curve feels as steep as Cochabamba. No shortage of challenges: communicating across a gulf of language, offering the best that is in you, interpreting puzzling behavior, taking the right risks, avoiding the wrong ones, finding your way, becoming a team, learning from mistakes… In general, probably no different from what those apostles encountered, the seventy Luke tells us about today.

To them our Lord says, “You have within you a power to share. I know, because I put it there. I free it and guide it. This power of peacemaking, peace-bestowing, won’t diminish you: it will strengthen you, and none of it will be lost. Those who are open to you will receive me, and those who receive me receive the One who sent me, the One whose reign of justice and peace is being built by the likes of you. And what goes around comes around: you will be blessed in the giving. At the least, your peace will come back to you. And more: as you bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill my law, you are sharing in the very nature and presence of God. Life will never again feel limited to the ways of the world. You’re helping the way of God come on earth as it is in heaven—my new creation is happening in you!

I believe that our medical missioners will hear a message something like this, whispered by the Spirit as they guide patients to and from surgery, as they sterilize instruments and wipe foreheads and hold hands in recovery, plunge toilets and dispense medications.

Our eleven friends stand on a front line of global belonging. They aren’t the only members of St. John’s standing in such a place of opportunity and challenge, this summer. Three sisters—Paola, Lili, and Alex-- are in South Africa and Lesotho, working with Grassroots Soccer, a program that uses the international culture of sports to educate young Africans about HIV and AIDS, making testing available, breaking taboos by talking about cause and effect, building relationships, dealing truth that can set people free. What a paradigm of global belonging these three young women present: Mexican-American Episcopalians finding their vocations in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s a paradigm with a future. Let’s pray that it becomes a common one.

Crossing cultures and borders willingly was uncommon in the ancient Middle East, and we hear that in our story from II Kings. A Syrian army commanded, Naaman, is urged to travel to Israel to find the prophet Elisha, to cure his leprosy. He’s indignant that he should have to leave his homeland, his superior homeland, his homeland right or wrong, and cross into inferior Israel for treatment. But he goes, and his meeting with Elisha disappoints him. Without the slightest trace of drama, the prophet tells him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River, to do what any number of Jewish peasants would be doing at the same moment (and what our Lord Jesus would one day do, to cement his bond with ordinary human beings), to strip down and wade in and be made clean. “Fine rivers flow through Damascus—why should I not bathe in them?” he asks his servants in a rage, and they calm him by observing that it’s such a simple thing he has been told to do—wouldn’t he rise to the challenge of doing anything that was truly hard to regain his health? Then why not something as simple and basic as this?

Let’s keep that question in mind, since it’s the one I announced at the start: What is the challenge we’re called to rise and meet?

That question has been raised and answered by this weekend’s international Live Earth concerts. On seven continents, over the 24 hours of 7/7/07, yesterday, more than 100 music artists were expected to perform, and two billion people expected to participate either remotely or in person, to mark the beginning of a multi-year campaign led by the Alliance for Climate Protection in the U.S., the Climate Group and Stop Climate Chaos in the U.K., among others, to inspire people, corporations, and governments to rise and meet the challenge of solving the climate crisis.

At Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Wembley Stadium in London, Aussie Stadium in Sydney, Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, the Coca-Cola Dome in Johannesburg, Makuhari Messe in Tokyo, the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, and HSH Nordbank Arena in Hamburg—and in countless church halls and school auditoriums around the world—the world rocked, yesterday.

For what purpose? To foster global belonging. To get us to recognize that we all stand on the front line of responsibility, and to encourage and challenge everyone, all of us, each of us, to sign the Live Earth Pledge which you’ll see on the green sheet in today’s worship leaflet. Seven points. One powerful message. Answer the call.

What is the challenge we’re called to rise and meet? I want to let former Vice President Al Gore answer that question, from his July 1st op ed piece in The New York Times:

“Our children have a right to hold us to a higher standard when their future—indeed, the future of all human civilization—is hanging in the balance. They deserve better than a government that censors the best scientific evidence and harasses honest scientists who try to warn us about looming catastrophe. They deserve better than politicians who sit on their hands and do nothing to confront the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced—even as the danger bears down on us.

“We should focus instead on the opportunities that are part of this challenge. Certainly, there will be new jobs and new profits as corporations move aggressively to capture the enormous economic opportunities offered by a clean energy future.

“But there’s something even more precious to be gained if we do the right thing. The climate crisis offers us the chance to experience what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing: a generational mission; a compelling moral purpose; a shared cause; and the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict of politics and to embrace a genuine moral and spiritual challenge.”

I hope I’ll see few green sheets left here, this morning. Whether it’s here in church or later at home, read the seven points of this pledge. We’re all in the sandals of Naaman today, a man of courage and conviction who had to lay aside his business-as-usual approach to life in order to accept an unlikely commission, a task on which his very life depended.

Like him, we’re hearing a prophetic voice calling us to bathe seven times, to take seven steps. Like Naaman, we can object. Our challenge is steeper in that no one’s telling us that all seven of these steps will be easy to do. But surely they’re basic to our future, and to the healing of the earth.

To read the seven pledges, go to http://www.climateprotect.org/aa16

Monday, July 2, 2007

Finding our Right Mind on Immigration

I’ve been a student of the Bible since I got hooked reading it as a teenager. That was a long time ago, and still I get surprised by features I notice for the first time, especially in the four Gospels. Today, I can’t hear this story about hot-headed disciples wanting God to strike dead some cranky Samaritans without recalling the story Luke told us last Sunday about the man who lived in the country of the Gerasenes. He was severely tormented by demons, we’re told, wore no clothing, and had to be chained by his neighbors because he was violent. Jesus called him to his right mind, a dramatic healing that didn’t work out so well for that herd of pigs that got spooked by all this and rushed over a cliff into the sea.

So there we have a famously crazy man whose life is reordered by the Spirit of Christ. In the end, he asks Jesus if he may follow him and join the band of disciples. “No way,” answered Jesus. “I have enough crazy men as it is. You go home and tell your neighbors they can put their chains away. I put you in charge of homeland renewal right where you live.”

And today, on the heels of that story, we get a glimpse of how crazy the disciples of Christ can be.

But before we revisit that story, I hope you noticed that long list of what St. Paul calls “works of the flesh”. When he’s done listing them, he warns his hearers that people who do such things will find that they don’t fit the new created order that God is achieving through the death, resurrection, and Gospel authority of Jesus Christ. Fifteen destructive behaviors are listed, though some seem to be repeats. In that list, first to be heard, are fornication and impurity. That appears to match the fervor of some Christian disciples today, who are convinced that matters of sexual politics and purity are the most important agenda for the Church and the world to resolve. Farther along on the list is another pair, dissensions and factions.
Which of these does our Gospel story address? How people behave sexually? No. As important as that subject is in a spiritually ordered life, Jesus doesn’t tell his story about that—in fact, that isn’t a topic he tells stories about, as a rule. It’s factionalism we hear about this morning. Age-old grudges between Samaritans and Jews explain why Jesus and his companions are not welcomed in that village—and the disciples are about to add to this long history of animosity. This is the front line of the new created order our Lord has come to achieve. He wants to do it by healing and teaching and feeding—we might call it the approach of humanitarian assistance—but his disciples want to take that front line by supernatural military might, not manna from heaven but mayhem from heaven.

What follows has, to my knowledge, never been captured in a stained glass window. Like the scene where Jesus throws over the tables of the money-changers in the temple, this scene of his rebuking his disciples hasn’t yet caught the Church’s imagination as being worth remembering in her visual arts. We might be better off, if we did keep before us this dressing-down, this scolding that is meant to deliver to all believers the message, “Don’t be crazy: you aren’t going to heal and overcome long-stewing factions by means of violence.” The right approach, the right mind to have, the mind of Christ, will express itself in healing and teaching and feeding, forgiving and freeing, justice meted out in mercy.

This is timely stuff for a nation sharply divided in factions over the complex subject of immigration. To call it complex is to respect diverse viewpoints and opinions. To call it complex is to hope—even insist—that people on opposite sides stop to deeply listen to one another. But it ought to trouble us all is that what’s driving our society’s handling of this subject is an unmistakably violent spirit that seems ready to command fire to come down from heaven and consume. Isn’t it time to rebuke this spirit?

I commend our two senators in Washington for rebuking the policy of Homeland Security that was actively deporting Yaderlin Hiraldo of Lawrence, an undocumented immigrant married to Army Specialist Alex R. Jimenez, one of three soldiers kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq, presumed dead. May our senators be successful in their attempt now to expedite the path to citizenship for all other undocumented spouses of American military personnel risking their lives on our behalf.

Massachusetts has also provided the stage on which the fire-from-heaven faction is earning rebuke from across the nation. In New Bedford on March 6th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE—agents carried out a long-planned raid on a leather goods factory where 360 undocumented immigrants were arrested. Almost two-thirds were handcuffed, jailed, flown to Texas and jailed again, all within twenty-four hours. Almost all were women, “smuggled away, terrified, and unable to contact family members,” reported The Boston Globe.

Hundred of thousands of our tax dollars got spent renting planes and Texas jail beds in this assault on hard-working Latino families, six months in the planning. ICE wanted to get these “criminals” as far away as possible from Massachusetts, where 95% of detained immigrants are released on bail (in Texas, it is under 60%), and bail in Massachusetts is one-fifth what it is in Texas. You might call our two states poster children for the factionalism and dissent that divides our nation on immigration.

I am the son of an immigrant, my father having passed beneath Lady Liberty’s torch in 1909, when she, herself an immigrant, was just 23 years old. This was a time when poverty in the north of the British Isles drove many to come here. Poverty, war, persecution, and ambition always ensure this country its place at the receiving end of a steady exodus, requiring intelligent and compassionate laws on the subject to be revised in every generation, to ensure justice.

You know that on the base of that statue the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” are inscribed. I’d like her words to be heard today.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

It is time to expect our legislators to polish these brass letters, so that we may see them again: not surrounded by yellow police tape, red tape, barbed wire—but shining as bright as the torch above.

To be a citizen of this country is to have a history that stretches four hundred years. To be a Christian is to belong to the Body of Christ at work in the world nearly two thousand years, that work shaped in large part by our Jewish heritage which adds at least another millennium to our long view.

By that long view, we see that many human societies undergird their common life by depending on the labor, the affordable labor, of foreign workers who cross their borders. Sometimes this is migration driven by poverty or by ambition. Sometimes it is slavery. By dependence on cheap labor, a society takes care of certain of its needs while freeing itself to grow and flourish—or to fiddle while Rome burns.

That we have twelve million undocumented residents in this country is evidence of two realities: their need to work, and our need to have them work. Whether we can send them home, fine them steeply, tear apart their families, force them through hoops of years of procedure, and still enjoy the standard of living we do, is a question we may not yet know how to answer. What the long view does teach us is that the humanity of our society will be shown and shaped by how we treat them.

One thing unites a compelling majority in this nation: We would not be here without Lady Liberty’s welcome. To be a citizen of this country is to belong to a society of immigrants, a society which has yet to honor its debt to the original inhabitants of these Americas, south, central, and north. It could quiet all factions in our current dissent to stand rebuked if they have forgotten this. Remembering this could help us find our right mind and compassion to end the craziness.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Shifting Ground

Readings this Sunday: I Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39


“…for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness…”

Every Sunday, the Collect of the Day names some theme that we then hear borne on the air in readings from so long ago. It’s not unlike asking “Where’s Waldo?”, to catch the theme in the prayer and then listen for it to appear in the readings.

So today we should be asking “How does God help and govern?” And "What does it mean to be set on the sure foundation of God’s loving-kindness?"

The ground keeps moving beneath our feet. Those are the words of Debbie Monahan, our Junior Warden, who—bless her—will chair a committee of parishioners whose task will be to re-examine where we are, and to recommend to the vestry and parish what we may do, to be wise stewards of our buildings and property and resources, once our big preservation project has been completed. This is a miniature version of what God faced in creation: Once the waters in the firmament above are kept where they belong, and the waters in the firmament below are kept where they belong, what do we bring forth out of the dry ground of the middle where we live? What worthy plan will be animated by the Spirit breathing life into our base elements so that we rise and bring delight to God and lovingkindness to the world around us?

A big enough task without the ground constantly shifting under our feet. What she means by that is all too familiar to the vestry, perhaps not to everyone here. The micro version is that we thought we were on our way to creating new spaces for hospitality, outreach, mission—when a still small voice of dripping water called us to a different challenge, the extensive repair and restoration of the outer shell of this old building. Lest that sound like just one shifting of ground beneath us, it was more like several, as one discovery led to another and the number of resident demons in these walls became known as legion, many, and very expensive to send packing.

But did the ground then stand still for a while? No! Out of the blue, the College informed us this spring that their longterm lease of our old rectory, which they’ve been using since 1994 as a popular co-op house for eight seniors each year, will end in June 2008. 2005-2006 saw us revising plans for new building. 2006-2007 saw us shift our focus to this building. 2007-2008 will now require our prospecting new uses for our third building which we’d had good reason to believe was sown-up for years to come.

To quote Elijah under the broom tree in Beer-sheba, “It is enough…” Or, as the commentator says the Hebrew really says, “Too much, O Lord, too much.”

How does God help and govern? Elijah falls asleep, under the shelter of that tree. He is stirred awake as if to receive a message. There it is: “Get up and eat.” And there, by his head, next to him on the ground, is a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.

Hot stones: the Hebrew says “hot coals”, and the other place in the Hebrew scriptures where we meet that term is the prophet Isaiah’s vision in the temple, where a seraph takes from the altar a hot coal with which he touches Isaiah’s lips in answer to the prophet’s lament that he is not up to the challenge of being a prophet. “Oh yes, you are,” needles the seraph, capturing his undivided attention, “because God is up to the challenge.”

“No, it is not too much, what you’re being asked to do,” is the message of the hot coals, and we prefer by far Elijah’s experience, how they warm for him the bread of angels. There are angels among us, strengthening our hands and hearts for the work we have to do here.

But there’s more alongside Elijah’s head as he awakens: a jug of water. The Hebrew word for that is so uncommon that we hear it in only two other places, one just last week when that widow at Zarephath offered Elijah her jug of oil, so little that she expected it to feed only her son and herself, but once shared the oil would not stop flowing.

Generosity among us does not stop flowing—and not just the “us” we already know. After Polly’s jug of water pitch last Sunday, a visiting family sent us not only a surprising and gracious gift, but also word that they have bought a home here and will in time be joining St. John’s.

How does God help and govern? Through signs and gifts and wonders, more numerous than the shiftings below our feet. But these signs of lovingkindness are not ends in themselves, only means by which our faith is encouraged, inspired, formed—and freed, to follow the sense of St. Paul’s letter heard this morning.

Without faith, he says, we’re in a prison whose bars are all the shoulds and oughts and musts inherited from the past. In a later chapter of that letter, Paul says it out loud: “For freedom Christ has set us free!” Trusting in Jesus Christ, staking our lives on his love for us, putting ourselves fully in his care, we discover that he has fired the jailer, set free all of us who were prisoners to one kind of fear or another, and exchanged our prison jumpsuits for a fine suit of clothes brought up from that basement of lovingkindness.

Notice that sign in each of our readings. The tormented man in the country of the Gerasenes wore no clothes until Jesus freed him: then his neighbors marveled to see him sitting at the feet of Jesus, in his right mind, clothed. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” says Paul. And that is not a suit of camouflage to hide in. Elijah, when he finally heard what he knew to be the voice of God, “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of his cave.” By the shoulds and musts inherited from the past, Elijah knew that he must hide himself from God even as he presented himself to the summons of God. There is no room or need for fear in Christ; clothed in Christ, we are healed of our fears and find our right mind—and God’s help and governance—in the company of disciples willing to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Remember the hymn: “Reclothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.”

Are we finding Waldo? These readings are answering the question, “How does God help and govern?” On one level, we’re hearing, it’s through gifts that show us the lovingkindness that is actually the ground of our being. At a deeper level, it’s through faith that God helps and governs, because only through faith are we freed to be open and receptive, freed from our demons, from our fears, become willing to listen, to sit with Jesus and his people in the world, willing to learn even through the soles of our feet when the ground shakes and shifts beneath us. God is there, in all that movement, all that change.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” You may have noticed that God asks him that question twice, once right after Elijah has received those gifts that strengthened him for his journey to Mt. Sinai, and again after that sudden violent summer storm rumbled through and left just its calm silent aftermath to convey the presence of God.

It’s the inescapable question that God poses to us and will until the cows come home: What are you doing here, now, just as you are?

It’s one more way God helps and governs, by relentlessly asking, and getting us to ask, that question: What are we doing here? What purposes are we serving? What do we seek? Whom do we love? How will our plans bring delight to God and lovingkindness to the world?