Thursday, April 26, 2012

Earth Day Matters

Scripture appointed for the 3rd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 3:12-19; I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

No other world religion insists upon the importance of flesh and matter as much as Christianity does. The Gospels begin with the Incarnation, the divine nature robing itself in human flesh so that human nature might grow into the full stature of Christ. And the Gospels culminate in all the material matters of Holy Week: palm fronds on a dusty road, bread and wine in an upper room, water poured on disciples’ feet, a kiss in the garden of Gethsemane, cruel blows falling upon a gentle Messiah, tender embrace of that bruised body by mother and dear friend.

And in his end is our beginning. Raised through death, from death, his physicality remains central to his story. In one resurrection appearance, he broils fish for his disciples’ breakfast. In another, he meets one disciple’s resistance by urging that brother to see him whole by touching his wounds. And today, the story of one more appearance features both his display of his injuries (testifying that he is the man of Golgotha) and his appetite for their familiar table fellowship (“Have you anything here to eat?”).

It is this honoring and utilizing of material being that made it natural during Lent to enrich our study series on creation by encouraging one another to sign up for daily e-mail suggestions from the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, an approach to Lent launched by the United Church of Christ and endorsed by Episcopalians and many others. Last year, over six thousand people the world over welcomed this day-by-day opportunity to fast from carbon as their Lenten discipline, embracing Lenten opportunity to become more conscious and conscientious in their daily lives. Barbara, our organist and choir director, was one of those six thousand, and this year some unknown number of us followed her lead.

In what I believe I can promise to be a different sort of sermon than usual, I’d like to mark this Earth Day by sharing with you three of this year’s Lenten suggestions. Each offers answers to a particular question.

The first is: What can you do about junk mail?

Each year, the average American adult receives 41 pounds of junk mail. The online business estimates that over a five year period, that volume of catalogs, credit card offers, unsolicited charity appeals, and circulars consumes over 100 million trees and 28 billion gallons of water, and produces more carbon dioxide than nine million cars. For $24.00 (that’s an Earth Day special offer), says it will for five years stop 80-95% of your junk mail.

Or you can do it yourself, if you’re the industrious type—and passionate enough to keep at it—by using to stop unwanted catalogs, 1-888-5-OPTOUT to eliminate credit card offers, and DMAChoice,org to report other junk mail. I hear there’s also an Apple ap to help stem the tide of what enters our mail boxes.

The second Lenten Carbon Fast question is: Is it bad to leave chargers plugged in after their job is done?

Jumping to one bottom line, a disciplined approach to this matter may save the average household $200. But there’s always another bottom line: how might this help our environment? Standby power use is responsible for an estimated one per-cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Some people will say that’s not enough to matter; others will believe that every little bit helps.

So this question addresses two matters. One is “vampires”, appliances that suck energy even when you think they’re shut off, like microwaves, DVRs, TVs, and game systems—anything with a colorful light or a digital clock. If unplugging these items is awkward, one noted blogger recommends putting such appliances on power strips, clustering two or three per strip.

“Wall warts” are the second offender. These are chargers with big boxy plugs, and other AC adapters. Often, we leave them plugged in when disconnected from the gadget they recharge. I’m likely to leave my phone charging overnight, which uses ten times the energy that leaving the charger dangling would use. It isn’t rocket science to observe how long my phone takes to recharge, and then begin imagining other times of day (or night) than bedtime to do it… but that’s my habit, and I’ve been sticking to it—until this weekend, when practicing what I would be preaching prompted me to discover how easy it was to start changing that habit.

Third among the Carbon Fast questions that caught my eye was this one: Are there ways to green our funeral care? As you’d bet, the answer is Yes, and the reasons for asking this question are many.

One may be the personal desire expressed by someone who is a water resources management specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “I have always felt,” she writes, “that the modern ways of burial are not the way I want to go. I would want to be connected to nature in death, not shut out from nature.”

Toxic embalming materials like formaldehyde are part of that shutting-out, and burying into concrete vaults caskets made of impermeable finished wood and metal further the job. The finishing touch is to locate burial in a cemetery, by its nature an inflexible use of land that supports neither naturally-existing plant and animal life, nor much by way of human communal use, when you get right down to it.

It has been estimated that US cemeteries inter more than 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete each year, along with more than a million tons of steel, and 30 million board feed of hardwoods.

Alternative choices, both new and ancient, can be explored through the Green Burial Council, the first nationwide clearinghouse for greener burial products and services. What are some examples?

Caskets made of plain pine wood, woven willow branches, painted cardboard, cane, bamboo—all described as beautiful, simple, and biodegradable.

Chemical-free burial is possible. Unless a body is to cross state lines, embalming is not required by law. Refrigeration will buy time, or prompt burial can be an answer for some, as it long has been for Jews, Muslims, Baha’i, and Quakers.

The green burial movement is creating a new kind of burial ground, in partnership with land conservation groups. Natural lands, not manicured grounds, are preserved for multiple uses, including bike or walking paths, native species conservation, environmental study, and burial, though not marked by large headstones-- perhaps a tree, a small marker, or just a GPS coordinate known to the family. While there are 200 green burial grounds in the UK, the movement is still in an early phase here, and has still a short list of such memorial preserves.

Cremation can certainly be a green practice, but has its own environmental hazards that are being addressed, like controlling carbon emissions at cremation facilities and resisting the pressures of the funeral industry to invest in miniature concrete vaults that seem designed to defy the opportunity to allow the return to the earth of human dust and ashes.

I believe I may have delivered on my promise of a diferent kind of sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Questions like those raised by the Carbon Fast belong in Eastertide, when our scriptures tell us that the righteousness of Christ is shown in the right deeds of his people, and when Christians are challenged to show by our actions what we profess by our faith.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Word Made Flesh

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 4:32-35, I John 1:1-2:2, and John 20:19-31

No other world religion makes the fleshly claim of Christianity, that God should choose to wrap divine being in the body, mind, and spirit of a human being; that the Word by which all creation came into being should be made flesh.

Incarnation, we call this doctrine. Notice its DNA all over our readings today. Jesus to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” The apostle John writing his primer of Christian faith: “We declare to you… what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… this life was revealed, and we have seen it…”

And, as if the incarnation of God in Jesus hasn’t been shown seated deeply enough in its appeal to the human race, a claim is made in the Book of Acts that goes to another deep place in the human psyche, that visceral place of private ownership of real estate.

We must not miss the exquisite timing, that we should hear this apostolic story on April 15th. The day our tax returns are due is when we hear the claim that no one in the first-century Jerusalem church claimed private ownership of any possessions.

It is said of the Roman imperial tax system that it wasn’t based on earning or selling, but on breathing. If you lived within the emperor’s reach, you were taxed—but apparently our apostolic forbears did not have to report capital gains.

It is also said by at least one well-regarded church historian that there’s not much evidence that the early church actually lived up to this standard of everything owned being held in common. This may have been the ideal, but how much was it practiced? In the Hebrew Bible we find a command from God that every fiftieth year should be a year of jubilee, marked by emancipation of slaves; but it’s not clear whether this was honored. Here, the Jerusalem church is distinguished by what happened on the fiftieth day after our Lord’s resurrection, such outpouring of God’s Spirit that the ragtag apostolic band was ignited and fused in one heart and soul, manifesting powers and gifts and radical commitment, an example being this pure socialism we hear about today. Is it the New Testament’s version of jubilee, a perfect ideal to profess but too hot to handle?

Well, consider that what we heard today is the second time that the Book of Acts makes the claim. Earlier, in chapter two, we hear, “(The Jerusalem Christians) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

Why tell about this community of goods twice in four chapters, unless it was based on something that actually happened?

“See how these Christians love!” their urban neighbors are reported to have exclaimed, impressed by something costlier than table fellowship. It was the Christians’ distribution system, their readiness to help people in crisis, “to each as any had need.”

Did it last long, this community ownership of goods that positioned the church to engage the world? The history of the primitive church doesn’t tell us, but we do spot it again, in time, as the monastic movement embraced poverty as one of its cardinal vows, creating an ongoing tradition of communal ownership that was, at its best, geared towards caring for the poor and the visitor as if each were Christ himself.

And when you consider the source of this dedication to higher dreams than home ownership, wasn’t it he himself? “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” he instructed his seventy disciples as he sent them out to prepare the way for his public tour to heal and teach, to elevate the poor and deflate the rich. As he countered the culture as a mendicant Messiah, so his followers are to lay at the feet of the apostles the wherewithal to proclaim good news of the incarnate God having his way on earth as in heaven, and to do this proclaiming as evangelists with a double major in practical theology and economics.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus says this to all his disciples, promoting us all to the A Team. “You mean to me what I mean to my Father. You are as essential to my mission as I am to his. You are the next level of the incarnation, I in you and you in me. As I have been sent, so I send you.”

That line is the jewel in the crown of our Gospel story today, even though Thomas usually catches the preacher’s attention. There stands Thomas, resisting belief in the superabundance of the grace of God that is stronger than death, and what his fears really prevent is his deployment as an apostle in mission for Christ.

There is another noteworthy coincidence about all this incarnation and its implications for our financial stewardship. Our parish budget this year, our best sense of how God is calling and sending us into the world, is running a deficit of about $25,000. To give that some perspective, that’s 5.5 % of our total budget.

And this is after a successful appeal with half our households increasing their pledges, and a dozen new pledging households. That’s a lot to be thankful for!

At the same time, an unusually high number of deaths and moves last year took a red pen to our numbers, and some of our elder members haven’t been able to maintain their generous giving. While we’re close to the bone on the expenditures side, we’ve had to step up our funding of health insurance, a pricey thing, as we all know.

You don’t often hear about the parish budget from this pulpit. Why am I mentioning it today? Because anyone who examines our budget will notice that over and above the nearly $50,000 that St. John’s sends to help fund our Diocese and our national Church and their outreach regionally and globally, we also have committed some $25,000 to maintain our longstanding voluntary mission grants that help empower twenty-five mission partners, local, national, and global. An orphanage in India. Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. The Berkshire Food Project. The list is long.

Who can miss the math? Our apostolic generosity involves just about the same number of dollars as our deficit. Because we believe we are called by God to be ready to engage the world, we are not going to erase our deficit by erasing our outreach. Because the apostles’ DNA shows stronger on our parish budget than the red ink, we intend to keep our minds and hearts open to find faithful answers to our need. It’s time to ask that we each take that task home with us today.

That’s about as soft an approach as you can get, compared to those first-century forbears who sold land and houses to empower their outreach. But, just like them, great grace is upon us. We, like they, have received the Holy Spirit that banishes fear. We, like they, are sent by Jesus on his mission, causing his word to be made flesh in our time.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Give It Away

Scripture appointed for Easter Day includes Isaiah 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8

“The boxwoods planted in the park spell LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again - come spring, come Easter - no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves…”

So begins Andrew Hudgins’ poem “Christ as a Gardener.” I’ve nipped off those few lines because I like that image of a word buried in the leaves.

Perhaps you’ll go rustling among the leaves of the Easter story, looking for the message that once spoke to you and might again, or a word you’ve yearned to hear, have yet to find, but long for, believing you will somehow recognize it when you hear it.

Like the poet’s boxwood, the Easter message we seek now may not be shaped quite like it was when we first heard it. Intervening falls and winters have entwined that message with conflicting claims, may have smudged the word unreadable.

The poet’s eye was caught by ragged remains of the original shaping of those boxwoods, but what inspires him is not what was but what will be, when power is released and those bushes burn with all the chemical reactions that we mean by springtime—when they take their own advice and rise, fresh shoots shaping renewal of life more eloquently than any human words can tell.

Easter’s message brings it own good news, that such a power is available to the human spirit. As we look for a word buried in the leaves of the first-century story, let it be a word that frees us to notice that certain power, released then, active to bless us now in this twenty-first century. Whatever living word we find in Easter, make it one that helps us recognize how God keeps releasing that certain power now.

Poet Luci Shaw describes that power in a poem that speaks to Jesus:

were the kind who used a new math
to multiply bread, fish, faith.
You practiced a radical sociology:
rehabilitated con men &
call girls. You valued women,
aliens, & other minority groups.
A general practitioner,
you specialized in heart surgery.
Creator, healer, innovator,
shepherd, story-spinner,
weather-maker, botanist,
alchemist, exorcist, iconoclast,
seeker, seer, motive-sifter,
you were always beyond us,
ahead of your own time, & ours.

And we would like to be
like you…
Grant us degrees in all
the liberal arts of heaven."

At the end of this poem, Shaw reminds the reader how it was that Jesus released the power to be like him: gently and simply, he took cool water and a towel and washed the feet of whomever God had given him. Doing that, he took the biggest step he could in downward mobility, to the very bottom of the totem pole of household servants, the one who washed the feet of guests at the front door. A stunning move by one whom, we heard earlier, God had anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power.

All his short life long, Jesus gave away power. To disciples, he never said “Worship me,” but “Follow me. Do as I do. And do it not by your own strength of will but by letting my mind be formed in you.” Harnessing this power that he kept giving away, sharpening it, deepening it, would be his kind of praying: Hallowed One, your will be done on earth as in heaven.

Crowds surrounded Jesus with all the wraths and sorrows of this world, and each person, one by one, became the recipient of his power. Until so much Judean Spring had come, so much divine power spread among so many so freely, that no one could fail to recognize: here was the fulfillment of the prophet’s vision, God making a feast for all peoples. Until, that is, certain powers-that-be-- the kind that be in all times and places, powerful men who accumulate power and share it only with those who do their will-- until they too recognized the potential, and clamped down hard on Jesus the light of the world.

If there is a word buried in the leaves of this story, it could be the word of the boxwoods: LIVE, for in him was life, and this life was the light of all people.

What has become of the Easter message in these past twenty centuries? Much entwining, smudging the word unreadable; and that’s a verdict Jesus’s closest friends and followers would likely agree on. His church, his people, have too often been marked by the futile effort to keep power, too often resulting in abusing power, rather than being known for choosing his way, to give power away.

Until “they take their own advice again—come spring, come Easter…” and fresh shoots of vision, courage, and authentic mission cause the bush to burn in renewal.

For the story is not finished. Having done their worst, the powers-that-be disposed of his body behind a heavy stone sealing the mouth of a tomb. This was not enough to end what God had begun in Jesus.

By the power Jesus had given away, he, the Word of God, could not be silenced in that tomb.

The closing words of Mark’s Gospel today say that “Jesus himself sent out through (his followers), from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

Jesus the Word is not buried in the leaves of what happened to him in the first century. His power, released throughout his followers, ensured that his story has not been finished. His certain power continues to bless this world, person by person, so long as it continues to be given away.

We Are Related

Scripture mentioned in this Easter Eve homily includes Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14

This is a year when a lovely thing happens. Christian Easter and Jewish Passover festivals overlap on the same weekend.

Novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander have published a new Haggadah, the script used at the Passover table to tell the story of God’s relentless love for the human race, a story we are rehearsing tonight in our own way.

Foer recently wrote about the experience of writing this Haggadah, which may replace the most popular and widely used script from the past two generations in America, a Haggadah prepared and distributed free (as a very effective piece of public relations) by the Maxwell House Coffee Company. I want you to hear a portion of his article:

“Like every child, my 6-year-old is a great lover of stories—Norse myths, Roald Dahl, recounted tales from my own childhood—but none more than those from the Bible. So between the bath and bed, my wife and I often read to him from children’s versions of the Old Testament. He loves hearing those stories, because they’re the greatest stories ever told. We love telling them for a different reason.

We helped him learn to sleep through the night, to use a fork, to read, to ride a bike, to say goodbye to us. But there is no more significant lesson than the one that is never learned, but always studied, the noblest collective project of all, borrowed from one generation and lent to the next: how to seek oneself.

A few nights ago, after hearing about the death of Moses for the umpteenth time—how he took his last breaths overlooking a promised land that he would never enter—my son leaned his still wet head against my shoulder.

’Is something wrong?’ I asked, closing the book.

He shook his head.

’Are you sure?’

Without looking up, he asked if Moses was a real person.

‘I don’t know,’ I told him, ‘but we’re related to him.’”

Yes, we are. And we count on many great figures and their sensational stories to teach us to recognize, use, and be grateful for the powers given to us by God.

We are related also to Xzavior, Athena, and Aura. In just a few moments God and we will seal that deal of relatedness by the covenant of baptism, when they will receive the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus, making them members of his worldwide family and intimately related to us.

Their families and we, their new family, will promise to do our job and see that these children keep learning from Moses and Ezekiel and, most of all, from Jesus, just what powers these are that God has given them. For we’ve heard tonight some important clues.

Moses’ story, leading Israel to freedom, speaks of the powers of courage and trust. Ezekiel’s story of the dry bones tells us a lot about the powers of spirit and hope. And the creation story points to the truth that we are given the power of creativity, and called into a grateful partnership with God who empowers us to be good stewards of creation.

This is, most of all, Jesus’s night, when the story of his life being stronger than his death shows us what powers he gives us: the power of love to become good caregivers and servants to one another, the power to inspire and teach and use our talents, the power to open our hearts, our friendships, and our world to God’s justice and peace, and the power of joy that rises out of the gift of life that is stronger than death.

His story really does become our story, for we are related to him.

(Jonathan Safran Foer’s article appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, April 1, 2012.)