Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Servant or Friend?

The Gospel for the 6th Sunday of Easter is John 15:9-17

Would you rather be someone’s servant, or friend?

If you were that person’s servant, what would be expected of you?

And if you were that person’s friend, what would be expected?

I asked these same questions at Wednesday’s eucharist at Williamstown Commons, and one elderly lady answered that last question, “Nothing!”

Or is it that the expectations made of a servant become the servant’s duty, while a friend rises to meet the expectations of a friend not as a duty, but as a delight, a privilege, an opportunity?

So which better describes how you believe God sees you: servant, or friend?

When you pray, how do you see yourself in relationship with God: Servant? Friend? When I think of formal prayers in our Prayer Book, several come to mind that say, “We, your humble servants…” Not so with “We, your cherished friends…” How come?

What did Jesus say to us today? “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

A servant doesn’t expect explanations. Not, “I’m asking you to wash these windows because it’s been six months since they were washed, and besides, I’m planning a big party later this week…” No, just “Wash these windows.”

Friends reveal to one another what matters to them, what they hope for, and care about. And so they invite a sharing in one another’s lives, taking part in one another’s burdens and blessings.

It takes some doing—even a lot of doing. We can fail to build a friendship, or we can fail to keep a frienship, by not actively taking part in one another’s blessings and burdens.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you,” says Jesus. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Is that an order a servant can fulfill? Or does it take a friend to rise to that privilege, to accept that opportunity and delight in it?

Which describes better how you believe God sees you: servant or friend? Do you expect your relationship with God to be your duty, or your delight and privilege and opportunity?

Today, the first day of the rest of your life, which calling do you choose?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Deacon Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

One of the most brilliant and riveting expositions of the Bible that I’ve ever heard was given at the Chautauqua Institution two summers ago by The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad, a Lutheran professor at Union Theological Seminary, and a renowned preacher. In what I say today I’m depending on what she said then, though I can guarantee neither the brilliance nor the riveting.

It was our first reading today, Acts 8:26-40, that caught her attention. She observed that with each repetition of the word “eunuch”, the men in the audience could be seen crossing their legs, uncrossing their legs, crossing them again.

The other detail repeated by Luke in his story is how this eunuch is an Ethiopian, which to a resident of the Middle East at that time was just as exotic as could be. Both details are useful to Luke, who means to intrigue his hearers. That the occupant of this chariot is Ethiopian suggests how far-reaching Judaism was in the first century, and as a result how international and cosmopolitan.

That he was a eunuch described his paradoxical station in life: to oversee the handmaids of Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians, he was qualified by having been castrated, having been made something other than an ordinary man. Most likely in the eyes of his male contemporaries, something less than a man. “A dry tree,” they may have called him, behind his back. But he had so excelled as an overseer that the Queen had put him in charge of her entire treasury. What was biologically central to his manhood had been taken away from him surgically, but he was powerful, wealthy, and traveled in style, in his very own chariot—then, as now, a sign of prestige.

As intriguing as this fellow is, Luke’s central character is, actually, the deacon Philip. As a deacon, he wasn’t supposed to be jaunting around the countryside preaching and teaching—he was expected to be taking care of the orphans and widows. But, according to Luke, Philip listened to the angels for his marching orders, and they sent him into the desert, along a wilderness road. There he is, hiking along in the breakdown lane, when there comes whizzing up to him this first-century SUV, whose driver we have already met.

If it was the angels who sent him, it’s now the Spirit of God that directs him, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” We’re then invited to let our imaginations picture Deacon Philip, running alongside to catch up.

Do you recall what the Ethiopian eunuch is doing? Yes, he’s committing the first-century equivalent of texting while driving. And his text is the prophet Isaiah.

“Do you understand what you’re reading?” asks Philip.

The eunuch, fresh from the revival of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, admits that he’s trying to make sense of the scroll he had acquired there in the capital—that he had spent a bundle on—and he had to admit that he would welcome some help unpacking its meaning. A convert to Judaism, he readily admitted that he was very much a learner and needed a guide.

Before this, he must have heard conflicting messages about how welcome he was in the eyes of God. Surely someone—maybe many—had cited to him Deuteronomy 23:1. Now there’s a verse of scripture you didn’t learn in Sunday School. Are you ready to hear it? “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

What a text for Mothers’ Day! What a text for a baptism!

But don’t you think this Ethiopian had heard this scripture used against him? On the basis of that text, how could this man ever have imagined taking his place in the assembly of Israel?

Just ahead in that scroll of Isaiah, just three chapters later than the portion he is reading today, the Ethiopian will hear what he is longing to hear. At chapter 56:3-6 we read, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

The Holiness Code in Deuteronomy speaks in categories not of human choosing, and so: No eunuchs allowed. The prophet Isaiah speaks of human choice: The eunuch who holds fast to God’s covenant love is precious to God. It isn’t by categories that we are saved or distanced—it is one by one, as each of us chooses how to respond to the grace of God.

That day at Chautauqua, Barbara Lundblad urged us to see how the responsible use of the Bible rests not in citing texts that prohibit, but in allowing conversation between the covenant love of God and the present. She invited us to consider how the Church, in its ongoing struggle with the present, is tempted to limit its use of the Bible to proscriptive prohibitive texts, and fail to welcome the conversation that just a little imagination prescribes--in centuries past justifying slavery, racism, the exclusion of women from full human status, and, in our own time, excluding queer people from full human status, all by staying on the surface of the Bible and not opening ourselves to the deeper conversation the Spirit wants to have with us on the subject of choosing, holding fast to, the covenant love of God.

Let’s make sure we don’t miss what’s happening in that chariot. The passage in Isaiah that the eunuch is reading is this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” This is just a portion of the marvelous description of God’s suffering servant who will accomplish a new dimension of faithfulness on earth.

“About whom, may I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Oh, we know! We know who it is we see in this text: We hear it in Holy Week. We use it to describe the passion of Christ, his self-offering on the cross. We know whom Isaiah means… And, sure enough, Philip introduces the Ethiopian to the Christ “starting with this scripture,” proclaiming to him the good news of Jesus.

But, said Barbara Lundblad that day, you can read the whole of the prophet Isaiah and you won’t find Jesus mentioned once. It’s possible that the prophet was speaking about himself, or some other prophet, when he described this suffering servant. The Jewish people have understood this suffering servant to represent the nation of Israel, the people of God. Without a doubt, the first Christians heard this passage and found it a perfect description of Jesus whom they called Messiah. In doing that, they entered a conversation with the Spirit of God. Without a witness beyond the text itself, Philip could not have seen Jesus in that text.

The eunuch, who has stood before the shearers and has tasted humiliation, is having his own conversation with the text as he asks, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” He is daring to wonder, does the prophet speak this about him, a dry tree, a eunuch from Ethiopia?

By asking, this man opens the door of his chariot to God in Christ. In his little course on the good news, Philip must have gotten to the matter of baptism as a sign of uniting one’s old life to the new life that is in Jesus Christ.

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian. How many times have I heard this moment in this story without imagining what Barbara Lundblad showed us, that day: that this is a desert road, where one does not expect there to be water.

Without the abundant provident love of God, none of us can expect full inclusion in the assembly, our own place at the table, in the heart, of God.

This eunuch, in conversation with the Spirit bearing witness in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, will soon be splashing in the waters of new birth and gaining that everlasting name foretold in the 56th chapter of Isaiah and made available to him this day on that wilderness road by God in the present moment. God, who runs alongside us in the breakdown lane, in unlikely characters like Deacon Philip, and asks to be invited into deep conversation about staying true to the covenant love in which God chooses us.

Today, Oliver will feel the waters of new birth and be marked as Christ’s own forever. It is for each of us who stand with him today—Sloane, Gerry, Celia, Susan, Maggie, and each one of us—to be the deacon who helps God ensure that Oliver is drawn into deep conversation about choosing, and staying true to, the covenant love in which God and Ollie will delight in each other.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Virus and Virtue

On Good Shepherd Sunday, the readings included Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, I John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18

There is a benediction I use occasionally that speaks of how the world has become too dangerous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.

Nothing teaches that more dramatically than a potential pandemic. We don’t know whether we’ve got one, or if we’re in rehearsal for one, this time. Whichever it may prove to be, let’s take a few moments today to consider two simple ways in which worship in a time of epidemic might be adjusted by truth and love.

First, let’s remember that in parts of the Anglican Communion the peace of Christ is passed from person to person without the touching of hands. I don’t mean the “God’s Frozen People” phenomenon still found in some parishes, where the only exchange is a verbal one between priest and people. I’m thinking of our Asian provinces, where culture provides not the handshake but the reverent bow for extending the peace of Christ.

There is a lovely moment in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when Lucy, youngest of the four Pevensie children, meets Mr. Tumnus the Fawn. Instinctively, she thrusts out her hand towards him. He jumps back, startled. “You shake it,” she instructs him. “Why?” he asks. “I don’t know!” she replies, in some surprise.

I’m glad we live in a culture where we do know how richly valuable touch is. For a very short season, we may wish to give it up out of respect for one another, and then rejoice in its return.

Second, we know that in a large swath of Christendom, receiving communion by the bread alone has been understood as valid. If that’s your temporary answer in a time of epidemic, you’re not being disrespectful.

And I suggest that if you normally sip from the chalice, that you not do that until this epidemic is done with us. Join the holy dippers. But join them just on a guest pass, don’t take out membership—stand your ground and keep to the ancient way, but not for a while, not until this flu has passed.

You may have noticed that there is hand sanitizer in the vestibule and at the foot of the aisle. There’s some also in the upper room, lower room, and in each classroom. You may want to know also that I’ve been using it at the altar since Easter, when I came down with a doozy of a cold, so I handle your bread with clean hands.

Isn’t all of this caution in sharp contrast to the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep?

He doesn’t go, “Eeee-yew!” when he sees us coming. He responds, “You,” as he draws us to himself.

In one sense, though, our caution is quite consistent with his care. New occasions teach new duties, and here it’s to lay down our accustomed patterns for the sake of the flock. We all need to become good shepherds in a time of influenza. The new bumper sticker may read, “Influenza happens.” Influence over what happens to us is, to some extent, a matter of choice.

And some time, some day, that may require some of us to practice more than just good hygiene.

Let me tell you a story. In the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints, September 9th marks the feast day of an Episcopal nun named, aptly enough, Constance and her companions, who have been called the Martyrs of Memphis, earning that name through their bravery in the year 1878, when yellow fever erupted in Memphis, TN. Within a month, a quarantine was ordered and 30,000 residents fled. 20,000 remained to face the epidemic.

It was a time of limited medical options. The death toll was high. But many brave women and men stayed at their posts or came as volunteers, despite the risk. Notable among them were Constance, Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, and her companions. They had come to the city five years earlier to found a school for girls near St. Mary’s Cathedral. Mother Superior was not about to leave.

When the epidemic began, the Cathedral Dean, George C. Harris, and Sister Constance organized relief work. Six of Constance’s sisters joined them, including one, Sister Clare, from St. Margaret’s House in Boston. The rector of a Memphis parish joined them, as did a young priest from Hoboken, New Jersey. Three physicians (two of them also Episcopal priests), and several volunteer nurses from New York also served on the relief team.

They didn’t set out to be martyrs. Their intention was to care for the sick. But they did this, knowing the risk. They were indeed good shepherds.

They weren’t alone. Relief teams from other denominations were doing the same demanding work, caring for the sick, comforting the dying, and taking in orphaned children. We’re not told how the other church teams made out, but of the Episcopalians, only two made it through alive. The high altar at the cathedral is a memorial to Constance and three of her sisters.

They answered the question posed in our second reading today: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” They rose to the standard of their Savior: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Their story suggests how fortunate we are, to have doctors and nurses and hospitals as available as we have them, and tamiflu, and national and international surveillance. And the media… make of them what you will.

Pray that, when the time comes and we are needed, we will know who will need us, where they live, what they will need, and how we will obtain and share it—that we will be ready, like Constance and her companions, to hear the voice of Jesus and follow where he leads.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Seeing Our Way to Recovery

The propers for the 3rd Sunday of Easter include Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, I John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36b-48.

“Many are saying, ‘Oh, that we might see better times!’ Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.”

A psalm for a world in deep global recession.

And if you’re among the many looking for connections between causes and effects, notice that our little Psalm 4 today packs a punch in verse two, when God is heard to boom in, “You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you worship dumb idols and run after false gods?”

There is a trenchant commentary on how we got to where we are. Dumb idols, false gods. The idol of wealth without work, wealth without social responsibilities, the idol of bigger and bigger businesses in unrestrained unregulated growth (which, when it happens physiologically, is called cancer) and the false god of greed, which can be fed only by claims too good to be true, and by promises that cannot be kept.

The psalmist offers four steps to recovery.

First, tremble. Our culture needs to sign into a detox center. We’re addicted to conspicuous consumption, prestige through ownership, and high expectations of security. As these are withdrawn we get the shakes. “Be honest,” our ancient coach urges us. “Let your heart feel all that it must as you let truth replace illusion. Tremble.”

Second, says the sage, “speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.” Here’s a prescription for rest, not more running around plugging up holes in dikes, but doing the inner work, tending your soul’s health. If our psalmist belonged to AA, he might say, “Work the twelve steps: One, admit that we are powerless over some of our appetites, that our lives have become unmanageable; Two, believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; Three, decide to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God…” And so on.

Third, the psalmist teaches, “offer the appointed sacrifices…” Yes, we’re getting better acquainted with sacrifice, a dimension that many have found missing in our national life in recent years, or rather an experience delegated to a minority (our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, for one) while the majority developed few skills in conserving or sacrificing for a higher good. By the time we one day look back on this economic collapse, we all will have become more adept at traveling light.

And fourth, “put your trust in the LORD.” The whole world is precious to him, and he will not let the humbling that has come upon us be without worthy purpose. The better times we may see, says the Psalm writer, require the light of God to recognize. And the gladness God will put in our hearts will be greater than what the markets in grain and wine and oil can provide.

That theme of clear sight runs through all our propers today. In the collect, we asked God to open the eyes of our faith so that we may recognize the Christ in all his redeeming work, wherever he breaks open the bread and pours out the cup of sacrifice.

Peter admonished his neighbors for staring at him and the other apostles as if they were magicians or especially pious just because they had obeyed Jesus and allowed his power to flow through their hands and hearts as they cared for the poor, the weak, and the excluded. “You see this man whom you know; he is restored to health because of Jesus Christ, not because of us, so see the Christ whenever you see the needy, and do what he tells you to do.”

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,” opened our second reading. “And one day we shall see God in perfect fullness, and seeing him will help us be like him,” said John who wrote this letter, trusting God to have a purposeful future for all who will keep their eyes open.

And the disciples are doing their best to do just that in the Gospel portion from Luke, but at the moment we catch them they’re terrified that Jesus standing before them is a ghost and not the risen Messiah. “Why? Why?,” asks Jesus. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And, to drive that point home, he asks them, “Hey, have you anything here to eat?”

His consistent mission in these fifty days of Easter is to help his church make sense of his sufferings, and, of course, of theirs. He does it still, and in these seasons of want and worry he will show himself in the sufferings of his world. And we shall see him, if we get close to one another in our sufferings and do what he tells us to do.