Monday, January 26, 2009

Nineveh Calling: Sermon at a Baptism

Jonah 3:1-5,10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20 are the scripture portions for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

So what’s with Nineveh? Two things worth remembering. First, Nineveh stood for how far a great and civilized city can fall. There is no Nineveh now, except as a future archeological dig, for it’s buried in the sands of Iraq, on the east side of the Tigris River, directly across from modern Mosul. It was an exceptionally large and powerful city, one of the oldest and greatest of Mesopotamia, and was at its height the capital of the Assyrian Empire—until its calamitous fall in the year 612 BCE. Ah, the glory that was Nineveh.

But second, Nineveh stood for how sharp a turn-around a government can make. Except it wasn’t the government exactly; it wasn’t from the top down. Rather, it was the people of Nineveh who took hold of their situation and launched this dramatic change in their course by personal repentance and change of heart. We don’t know the exact nature of what had gone wrong there—the story of Nineveh is not presented as history, but as an object lesson. Keep it simple, and it’s probably a story about corruption derailing a great civilization, corroding a culture of law and sowing seeds of destruction.

The prophet Jonah is forever linked to Nineveh. In Israel, Nineveh was seen as standing for all that stood against the chosen people of God. It was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s arch-enemy. When God called Jonah to report for duty in Nineveh, Jonah fled by sea, not so much refusing to be posted in enemy territory, but having the dark hunch that, if he were to go there, God would use him as an agent to bless Israel’s nemesis, and that was too much for Jonah to swallow. You know the rest. The problem swallowed him (you might call it a whale of a problem) and the unrelenting grace of God spat him out on Nineveh’s waterfront, requiring him to serve an all-embracing God. You can run, but you can’t hide. You can believe in a narrow nationalistic God, but God will be what God will be, and do what God will do.

Eventually, God the persistent persuaded Jonah the resistant to deliver a prophetic message to the people of Nineveh. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” is how it came out of Jonah’s mouth. Bible scholars wonder if Jonah didn’t confuse his will for God’s will. It’s clear in Jonah’s larger story that all along he dreaded the possibility that God might be calling Nineveh to repentance and renewal, and dreaded even more the prospect that the people of Nineveh might turn to God, take him up on the offe, and find blessing. Jonah the patriotic Israelite was offended by the large-heartedness of God.

And he was absolutely right in his hunches. Nineveh would not be overthrown (not this time—later, but not now). Instead, Nineveh would do an about-face. From the greatest to the least, female and male, peasant and nobility, young and old, influential and powerless, the citizens of this city take the initiative, display a deep change of heart, and show their readiness for a new era of honesty in service of the common good. This popular movement reaches the ears of the monarch of the city, and he joins them, giving official approval to what has already swept the land. It is time for change.

Jesus himself honored the reputation of the people of Nineveh when he announced his vision of God’s final judgment: the citizens of Nineveh would stand in judgment of the people of Israel, for the Ninevites had known how to repent and that is the spiritual skill God requires for nations and neighbors to be at peace with one another. (And with that as an example of our Lord’s public preaching, you don’t have to look further for reasons why the powerful found him a threat to the status quo.)

Do I hear some possible applications of this story to us in our day? I do.

We need no more of the politics of Jonah, wrapping himself in his nation’s flag, blaming enemies abroad, fearing change, and dreading a world where all have access to the mercy of a just God.

In the mess we’re in, we dare not waste our soul’s energy fixing blame for causing it. Fixing it requires understanding what has happened, but requires more a vision of the prize worth setting our eyes on. What is the common good, and how do we best serve it? Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela determined to rebuild South Africa on the foundation of truth and reconciliation, not recrimination and partisan revenge. Our national situation is not that of South Africa, but a good strong dose of truth and reconciliation would take us far now, could build in us the skill of repentance, humble us down to hear what the cartoonist once put in the golden-tongued mouth of Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

A theme announced by all our readings today is what can happen when ordinary people recognize the urgency of the moment now. A nation can change course from destruction to rebirth. Because God is at work in our world in the person of the risen Christ, apostles are still being made out of people like you and me who hear the call “Follow me,” recognize Jesus in the call, and do what he asks.

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” So St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, and sounds timely to us. Rigid boundaries between nations, cultures, races, religions, theologies, denominations must be tested to ask how they serve the common good, and be allowed to become porous, their doors and windows thrown open for light and air.

What roles will Mikayla and Isabella play to serve God’s purposes of truth and reconciliation? Will they hear the voices of the prophets forming in them a faith in the unrelenting persistent mercy of God? Will they come to believe what apostles teach, that the lovingkindness of God is poured out on each person, the divine voice saying to each what was said to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased…”? What nets will they weave to catch the giftedness of people and unite them in service to God who dwells among us? Will these sweet sisters learn the wisdom of Spirit that equips them to build peace among people and nations?

Will we learn in time to show them? The people of Nineveh call to us over the millennia: Don’t wait for healthy change to trickle down from on high! Cause it from the ground up. Do not waste the precious gift of now. Conserve and steward God’s gracious and powerful creation. Practice all that you value. Find and serve the common good. Dare treat one another as equal heirs to the love of God. Recognize and exercise the powers you have to change the terms of community, even the course of history. Learn--and teach-- to do justice, love kindness, preach short, work long, and walk humbly with God.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Repairing a Broken Nation

Scripture for this Sunday included I Samuel 3:1-20 (God’s call to the boy Samuel) and John 1:43-51 (the calling of Philip and Nathanael)

What do we make of our Bible readings today?

Isn’t it interesting that neither young Samuel (a bright boy) nor venerable Eli (a wise elder) realized who was really interrupting their sleep. Samuel was certain it was Eli, and Eli at first assumed, who knows what, maybe a creaky shutter on a temple window? But something much bigger was going on, wasn’t it? God was calling out a new leader; God was renewing the entire people, the whole of Israel.

And in our Gospel today, Jesus shows us again what we’ve just seen: that it takes first one, then two, a few, and a few more to help God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Jesus needed Philip. Philip knew more help was needed, so he told Nathanael, “We need you, too!”

These are the right stories to hear on the day before Martin Luther King Day, stories that fit a special Sunday when (later this afternoon) we’ll hear and see the history of the Civil Rights Movement in this nation, with the help of our guest artists, Charlie King and Karen Brandow.

And our stories this morning also say something important to us as we count down the hours to the inauguration of our new President. They tell us an ancient but urgent message: First it takes one, then two, a few, and a few more to lead the way for God’s will to get done on earth as in heaven. That’s a big order that will take many, more than many, to bring about.

I mean, how many people does it take to repair a broken nation?

We have to ask that in our own day. We know we have to rebuild so much because so much isn’t working right.

Our nation wasn’t working right in the decades preceding the Civil Rights Movement. In some southern states, laws required African-Americans to drink from separately marked water fountains, to use separately-marked public toilets, and sit in only the separately-marked seats in the “colored section” of public buses. In some places, like Montgomery, Alabama, African-American passengers were expected to give up their seats if white passengers wanted to sit.

Rosa Parks said No to that soon after 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery. When her white bus driver saw that the front of the bus was filling with white people, some of them standing, he went down the aisle and moved the “colored” section sign to just behind Rosa Parks and waved for those several African Americans to give up their seats. Years later, Rosa Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”

Her section mates did move. She did not. She was arrested by the police, and spent that night in jail. Writing about this later, she denied that she felt she was too old to have to move, or had felt too tired to move. “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she wrote. Three days later, plans for the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches. First it takes one person, then two, then a few, and a lot more, to fix a broken nation.

In 1961, Fannie Lou Hamer, the granddaughter of slaves and the child of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, required surgery. Without her knowledge or consent, during that operation the white doctor made sure that she would never again bear a child. This was part of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor African Americans in that state.

The next year, Fannie Lou became the first volunteer to register black voters through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. African Americans who registered to vote in those days were often beaten, fired from their jobs, even killed by lynch mobs. Asked if she wasn’t afraid to volunteer, Fannie Lou replied, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been scared—but what was the point of being scared? The only thing white people could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little at a time since I could remember.”

Ella Baker worked behind the scenes with the most famous civil rights leaders: W. E. B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael. And she was part of the founding or growth of all the prominent organizations, among them the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She once said, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces, or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come.” The social responsibility she believed in could happen only by the determination of every citizen who knew the nation was broken and needed to be rebuilt.

First it takes one person, then two, then a few, and a lot more.

Come, this afternoon, and meet these three women, and more, in a performance event by our visiting singers, songwriters, and storytellers, Charlie King and Karen Brandow. The name of their performance is “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”, a history of the Civil Rights Movement.

When President James Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881, he got people thinking about the Civil War when he said, “My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers’ God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation.”

Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker with all their might hastened a reconciliation which would take far longer than President Garfield could have imagined. If these three heroic women could have lived to this day, their hearts would spill over rejoicing at the reconciliation they would see in the inauguration of our first African American President.

But I believe they would also remind us of the arithmetic we have learned today: First it takes one person, then two, then a few, and a lot more. In order to fix a broken nation, it will take us all.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wading Into New Life

It would take a wide-angle lens to do justice to the scene at the Jordan River. St. Mark uses few words to tell what happened. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were going to John the Baptizer, who appeared in the wild, on the banks of that river, preaching “a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sin.” (That’s how Eugene Peterson puts it, in “The Message.”)

This was an outdoor revival meeting, but no tent. No meeting either, not in the sense of orderly rows of folding chairs facing a stage and a choir. No. That’s why we need to see this on the big screen. It may be the beauty of holiness, but this is no pretty picture: John’s got fire in his eyes as he stands knee-deep in that muddy water, and as his words hit home, people slide down those riverbanks and run to him, splashing, thrashing to be next to let go a soiled life and rise to what is new and clean.

This is not Anglican liturgy, done decently and in order. This is not well-dressed ushers pointing a neat row of worshipers to the next opening at the communion rail. This is the old social order cracking open and disordered lives spilling out turning, churning that ancient river into a muddy froth, as conversion of life works its messy way, hearts breaking open with grief at the past, conviction that there must be a better way, readiness for it to be now.

John the Baptizer has come, preaching a baptism of repentance. Want to hear his sermon? This is St. Luke’s version, as Eugene Peterson expresses it. I’m going to change it just a little; see if you can tell where.

7-9When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: "Brood of snakes! What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God's judgment? It's your life that must change, not your skin. And don't think you can pull rank by claiming, ‘We are Episcopalians!' Being an Episcopalian is neither here nor there—they’re a dime a dozen. God can make them from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire."
10The crowd asked him, "Then what are we supposed to do?"
11"If you have two coats, give one away," he said. "Do the same with your food."
12Tax men also came to be baptized and said, "Teacher, what should we do?"
13He told them, "No more extortion—collect only what is required by law."
14Soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
He told them, "No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations."
15The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, "Could this John be the Messiah?"
16-17But John intervened: "I'm baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He's going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned."
18-20There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them.

So you caught where I made a small change? Yes, the Episcopalians part. If that story is going to serve us, we’d better get ourselves into it, I say.

And that is what Jesus did. He was there, watching this Bruegelesque scene, this human equivalent of a buffalo stampede. And then suddenly he was there in the turgid Jordan up to his knees in the same water that thousands had pilgrimed their way through before him. He waded in.

Consider what that action said. The crowds hunger and thirst for the Messiah, God’s anointed agent who would set right the ancient wrongs. Could it be John? He answers clearly, “No, but he’s coming.” And then Jesus steps down that riverbank into the Jordan.

The timing makes the message unmistakable: This is the Messiah! But the action makes them wonder. Would the Messiah get his feet wet and his hands dirty with all this miserable mud? Wouldn’t he stand high above them on a mountaintop, not be last in line for this exercise in revival that we’ve all gone through?

Welcome to the world of Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah of radical equality, Word of God made flesh of man and woman. To make us new from the inside out, our Savior first becomes one of us, one with us.

He announces the platform, the social agenda of his public ministry, standing there with his feet in the oozing riverbed: it is to stand with us, for us.

He opens his three short years of recorded ministry by bringing up the rear of this vast procession of life-torn human beings seeking new life. He’s doing it himself. But because of who he is, when he does it, earth and heaven are gathered into one and we see the heavens torn apart as much as to say that the very heart of God is torn open in compassion for all this human suffering and becoming, all this dying to the old and being birthed into the new. There is nothing in the way between humanity and God in this moment when Jesus sums up all this passage through the waters of new birth. Unzipped is the firmament that ordinarily shrouds human existence. The usual silence is punctuated by the voice we would hear more if we sought it. “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We’re certain God says that to Jesus, about Jesus. But isn’t God saying it about all with whom Jesus is standing? A sweet twelve-year-old girl who was the last one in, just before Jesus… And the old fellow who couldn’t see to find his way down the riverbank and had to be helped…And the two who helped him, one in fine clothes and the other in the rags of a beggar. A young woman old beyond her years, holding a child. That hardened man who cracked a smile as if he liked the feel of a thawing heart… God says it about them all, seeing them all stand in the same muddy waters of revival. God says it about us, who find new life in Jesus Christ. “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is the voice that puts heart in us.
Heart which impels us to wade in and go knee-deep in life, again and again.

We remember today a woman who did. Barbara Mahon, Jim’s Mom, Paula’s mother-in-law, Evie’s grandmother, Jina’s friend and friend of many. She moved to Williamstown in 2006, recognizing that she needed help navigating the cross-currents as her health was failing, and fighting that need, for she had spent her life helping, being the helper.

She was a speech pathologist, helping countless children find their voices. She volunteered at a hospital for children with cerebral palsy. She counseled AIDS patients and their surviving children, served as a mentor through her local Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council, taught handicapped children to swim, taught English as a second language, brought meals to shut-ins, created a reading and discussion program for young adults. Even in these last two years, she volunteered at the Women’s Exchange, the Milne library, the Berkshire Food Project.

Wherever do we get the idea that conversion of life is simple? This helper, in her last years of life, had to become a receiver of help. That’s about as challenging as it gets, deep water, muddy. That’s when you must dare hear God’s approval—You are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased—as sheer grace, undeserved, unearned, pure gift.

The story of our Lord’s Baptism is about the revival of the human heart. This story calls each of us to be amazed by the grace, the overflowing abundant love, the heaven-unzippering passion of God for us, for each of us. Our Messiah of radical equality stands with us, when we are inspired to wade into life, and when we cannot.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thirty-Five Years a Priest

The propers for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas include Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; and Matthew 2:1-12.

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, I was ordained to the priesthood. This happened in St. Andrew’s Church in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where by then I’d served for six months as Assistant to the Rector. I was soon to be twenty-seven years old, had long dark hair, and was two waist sizes leaner. I was engaged to be married that summer to my college sweetheart, Diana, then a school teacher in southern Virginia, and with me that evening as I disappeared under a canopy of priests and bishops leaning in to lay-on hands in the apostolic gesture by which we believe God the Holy Spirit likes to move in blessing and in power.

Conrad Gesner, retired Bishop of South Dakota and resident in that parish, officiated. This tall and holy man would lay his hands on your head in blessing and knead you as if you were a lump of dough. Just before that moment of holy huddle when many hands brought to bear the divine pressure of gravitas and grace, a door was heard to open and a rustling of vestments getting adjusted, as Alexander Stewart, Bishop of Western Massachusetts, slid into home plate, returning from another commitment. It meant a lot to me, and I believe to him, that his were among those hands, for he had helped me form faith from my childhood. I had served as one of his acolytes at the altar of St. Mark’s Church in Riverside, Rhode Island. There wasn’t a moment in my young life when I was not certain of his care for me and his confidence in me… at times possessing more of that than I did. Like the time when he was recuperating from surgery, couldn’t drive for a week, and determined that that week (I was on spring break from college) was the week he would teach me to drive a standard transmission so he could make some of his appointed rounds. I learned a good deal about conversion of life that week. As we tackled College Hill on the east side of Providence, a city bus in front and another right behind, we both discovered new dimensions of grace.

I have no doubt that he played a major role in my sensing a tidal pull towards becoming a priest, as he did for many young people, counting it every bit as much of a success when what they became was teacher, dancer, engineer, homemaker— while also keenly committed to being part of the priesthood of all believers. It was all a seamless robe to him, the garment of gladness and righteousness with which Jesus Christ vests his Church.

And there were other men and women whose witness, whose practice of faith and leadership, caused me to admire, and want, and sense a pathway of service in and through the Church. This sensing survived, even thrived during, my years in college… almost didn’t survive my first two years in seminary, was revived during an internship in the Berkshires (when I served for fifteen months as youth minister at St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield) and renewed in a final year of seminary.

I’ve told this story before. On a retreat at a monastery just before I was ordained a deacon in 1973, I told my confessor that I was feeling unworthy to be ordained. I’d jumped through all the hoops expected by my seminary and my diocese, but I was flunking confidence. “Unworthy, you say,” he responded. “Did it ever occur to you that ordination is not about God or the Church needing you, but about you needing this pathway of service for your soul’s health?”

I’m not sure that my confessor would have been successful defending that approach with either the theologians at my seminary or the diocesan psychologist. But no, I hadn’t let myself taste grace that deeply, and he amazed me by his answer. It was just the ju-jitsu I needed to help open me to what God might be up to, just the corrective to invest confidence in God, not in myself.

I hear each of our four portions of scripture today offering an answer to the twin questions, What is a priest? What does a priest do in God’s service?

Jeremiah has a vision of the reign of God in the midst of a renewed people. The first step is God’s gathering of his scattered people, and the climax is God’s converting Israel’s mourning into joy, as if God were a gardener watering dry dust and seeds into lush growth, or as if a dancer delighting an audience and drawing them into the dance, giving them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah helps me see how priesthood requires recognizing that God is the gatherer and the converter. The priest serves that gathering, but it is God who gathers, God who calls each and all to take their place at the table of new life. The priest serves that converting and transforming, often by pastoral care for people as they grieve their losses. But it is God who gives conversion of life.

I notice that God promises to give the priests their fill of fatness. My last 35 years, at one table but in four different locations (Longmeadow, Easthampton, Worcester, and Williamstown) have fed me with rich relationships, uncountable privilege in accompanying people in their rites of passage, adventure in liturgy, support and challenge in preaching, and responsibilities I never wanted (landlording, fundraising, furnace-tending) but, in a religion of Incarnation, even these have opened pathways for the Spirit.

Psalm 84 sings a love song that any priest knows by heart, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” The laity, the whole people of God, know this deep delight in the beauty of holiness, I know. It isn’t just the priest, it’s also the organist, the altar guild member, the forever parishioner and the newest visitor who rightly feel like sparrows finding their house and swallows a nest by the side of God’s altar. It is the whole priesthood of believers who happily dwell in God’s house. The priest’s role is not to make them happy, but to lead people to where true joy is to be found, by truthful ministry of Word, sacrament, and community. And it is to lead that community in making sure their house of prayer is also a house of hospitality.

The apostle writing to the Ephesians describes that knowing of God that every priest in apostolic orders wants for her or his people and so teaches them to see with the eyes of the heart enlightened, that they may know what is the hope to which God has called them, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for all who believe.

Matthew’s story of the adoration of the magi reminds me that it takes a diversity of gifts brought to Jesus to effectively serve the world. What might those three gifts mean to a priest? Gold, to raise up brave stewardship of our resources, material and mystical, for the work of God in the world. Incense, to represent prayer without which there is no sustained ministry in the world. Myrrh, that in the midst of life there is death and at the edge of death is life, that at the heart of everything for the Christian is the pulsing of two mysteries, Christmas incarnation and Easter resurrection.

And while the gifts matter, the bearers of gifts matter more. That there are three seekers at the stable recommends teamwork and partnership as the hallmark of wise ministry. In Anglican governance, a parish priest leads only in tandem with a Vestry, and at the core of that team is a smaller one, its Steering Committee, and at the core of that is a yet smaller partnership of wardens and rector. In the Anglican way, a priest works partnered with his or her Bishop—the vows of ordination include a vow of obedience to one’s Bishop.

In all these partnerings and all this teamwork, we’re simply lining up behind the magi, and alongside the apostles, wise ones who model for us the miracle that in God’s service individuals who love God are united and transformed into the living Body of Christ.

A priest gets to witness this wonder, and play a part in this conversion of life which is the common pathway of the priesthood of all believers, whose one ministry in the world is the ongoing priestly work of Jesus Christ, the reconciliation of all people to God and to one another in him.

I am grateful to God for the privilege and responsibility of being a priest. I am grateful for you and for the hundreds of other people over these thirty-five years who have helped God form a priest, have helped me become one, and have encouraged me to keep on keeping the vows I made on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, 1974.