Saturday, February 03, 2018

Nothing is Impossible

Twelve years ago I suffered a life threatening illness. From a fractured tooth came an abscess, and then the abscess infected the bone in my jaw. The infection followed the nerve in my jaw, leaving me unable to feel most of my bottom lip and teeth. The infection then travelled up the side of my face. All of this developed over the course of one week, taking me from a dentist who thought I had TMJ to a hospital room and a team of doctors including a surgeon, an internist, and an infectious disease specialist. At first the hospital attempted to cure me with IV antibiotics. But 48 hours later, with the infection increasing, I was prepped and waiting for surgery. Following surgery to drain the infection I remained in the hospital another week and then, because the infection was in the bone, I went home with a pic line so I could apply iv antibiotics myself, four times a day for the next 9 weeks, until they were certain that no infection lingered in the bone.
As we hear in our Gospel this morning, Peter’s mother in law is sick with fever. Having a fever was no small matter in the ancient world – people knew that fever carried a high potential for death. Then, Jesus comes into the home and into her room, and heals her. Upon which she immediately rises from the bed and begins to serve her guests. “Being raised up” is how the Gospel describes this healing, using a verb, egerio, that is common in the Gospel of Mark. This verb suggests that a new strength has been imparted to an individual laid low by illness in order that they may rise up and take their place in the world.
Think about that – a new strength imparted to one laid low in order that they may rise up and take their place in the world. 
The same verb “To serve” is used in Mark to describe both the actions of the mother-in-law  AND the actions of Jesus – both are called to serve in the same way. Using that same verb for the woman and for Jesus indicates that serving is a call from God, to serve is holy. Apart from Jesus she is the first person who is described with this verb – making her the first disciple of Jesus, doing God’s work in the world by serving others. Only later is the verb used to describe the ministry of the other twelve disciples.
Following this story about the mother in law we find Jesus healing many others. We see Jesus in action, serving others, as an agent of God’s healing love in the world. It’s as if the door of the woman’s house, where she was healed, becomes the doorway where all in the city are healed.
However, it’s important to note that being healed and being cured are two different realities. Being cured is what the doctors did for me, cured me of an infection. Being cured comes from medical intervention or the body’s own natural immune system. Healing however is an expression of God’s power, grace, love, mercy, and compassion. Healing happens deeper inside, in the realm of one’s soul. Because healing comes from God, one might be healed even though one is not cured of the disease.
 One of the primary ways we access the healing that God offers is through prayer.  Jesus takes time out for stillness, to pray, to reflect and from it he finds his direction. 
One of the primary purposes of Sunday morning worship is to offer us this time for stillness and prayer, a time to be lifted up out of the concerns of our lives and be reminded of who we are and whose we are. Walter Bruggeman, a biblical scholar, has studied the Psalms and written extensively on them. The Psalms were the foundation of worship for the ancient Hebrew people, they were prayers sung during worship. Bruggeman speculates that worship for these people found its anchor in a theological understanding of God that began in Genesis 18, the story of the strangers who appear to Abraham and Sarah and tell them that Sarah will have a baby, even though she is old. It is a story that articulates the primary belief of these people, that nothing is impossible for God. That belief continues throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Judges to Jeremiah, to all the prophets, through most of the Psalms, and into the New Testament, from the Gospel stories that end in resurrection to Paul’s letters to the churches, and even in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. The primary tenant of faith, proclaimed throughout the ages is, "nothing is impossible for God.” 
Of course today we are practical, learned, modern people and this belief probably sounds naive to many of us. Or at the very least we may give it lip service but we don’t really actually believe it because there is no empirical evidence to support this belief. No tangible proof that God can do anything. I mean, look at the world we live, at the divisiveness, the anger, poverty, violence, the seeming decay of every institution, if God could do anything, why doesn’t God fix this mess? 
As Christians we learn that God intervenes in the world through us, through human beings. The incarnation, the birth of God’s Word made flesh, and the calling of people to be disciples of God, is the calling of each of us to partner with God to bring forth God’s kingdom in every age and every time. God is seeking to raise us up, to work with us and through us. 
How can we possibly know how God is trying to use us if we don’t take the time to be still and listen, to avail ourselves to God in prayer?
Next week Ken Shuman from Faithwalking will be us. He will lead the vestry retreat on Friday and Saturday, preach on Sunday, and lead an adult forum. Faithwalking is an ecumenical group of Christians who are working to be healed from the trauma’s of life, physical, spiritual, or emotional trauma,  the kind of trauma that hold one back and keep’s one from living a full authentic life, from being our true selves. In being healed, Faithwalking raises up individuals and communities to their true mission, their true calling from God - healed and raised and sent out to serve others, partnering with God to bring forth God’s love to every corner of world, living in the most authentic way. 

Because nothing is impossible with God. 

a reflection on Mark 1:29-38 for Epiphany 5B

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Risky Business of the Thin Place

A number of years ago I drove highway 12 in Utah, which is a loop from Bryce Canyon east to Escalante then north and finally west again where it reconnects to the main highway leading to Salt Lake City. This scenic drive takes one on a winding road up to the very peak of the Rocky Mountains. One section was a mere two lane road with sheer 9,000 foot drop offs on both sides, straight down the mountain sides. I had the impression that a strong wind could blow us right off the edge. It was a terrifying yet absolutely awe inspiring drive, leaving me with the sense that I had been in the presence of our creator, experiencing the beauty of this world as God intends it to be.

I felt something similar when I lived near Lake Michigan and could walk the beaches and experience the changes of seasons in that immense body of water, from the rich deep colors of summer to the muted tones of winter with snow and ice.

Spiritually speaking experiences of God breaking into our every day lives are described as a “thin” place, when the veil between this realm and the next is thin or lifted. 

Thin place experiences are always unexpected and may be totally missed if one is not paying attention. Some people yearn for thin place experiences, where the veil is lifted and one’s awareness of God’s presence is enhanced. Finding one’s self in a thin place is often the result of a journey through risky terrain. 

We live in a world today that often runs contrary to thin places, that is instead thick and wooly. 

Some say that society is deep in what Murray Bowen Family System’s Theory calls “Societal Regression.” Societal regression is always symptomatic of a society that is clamping down from chronic anxiety and fear of change. The last time society went through a major regression was in the Middle Ages. Then the angst and fear produced the crusades and instituted an idea that the world was flat and that nothing existed beyond a few known countries and continents. That regression was broken open when some explorers dared to break through the fear and set sail across the waters. Fear was replaced by a few brave souls who were willing to step out into the unknown with creative imagination. That ushered in the era of Renaissance and eventually the reformation of church and state. 

Bowen theory says that the United States began a downward slope of societal regression in the late 1950’s, post WWII. This regression is the result of chronic anxiety caused by wage stagnation, fewer job opportunities, increased population growth, fewer natural resources, and is influenced by changing social norms around racism and gender as well as the reality of larger global influences, all changes that are increasing fear and anxiety around change, and thus a reactive pull inward, in an effort to limit change. The cycle of regression lasts until the society can turn around and engage in brave, creative, inspired, risk taking endeavors.

In the mean time, one of the primary symptoms of anxious times is a tendency to criticize, to dissect and take apart what others say and do. In all forms of social media, on Sunday “news programs,”  in political arenas, and in other community relationships, arguments are polarizing; with people aligning at the ends, leaving little room for thoughtful discussions and the seeking of a middle ground.

How we speak to one another, and our capacity to listen and ponder the grace and the gift in the other, is crucial in order to move out of anxiety and into hope and grace. Our reading this morning from Deuteronomy addresses this by asking the question “How does one know a prophet is from God?” “Who speaks for God?
Likewise Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth says we know that "all of us possess knowledge…(however) knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… Prophets speaking the word of God are always pointing the way toward love and justice as  God proclaims it all are loved, all are valued.

In December Bishop Gibbs spoke to us in an adult forum regarding what it means to be Episcopalian in the world today. He also offered us a gift, the potential to have another Curate for three years, for which he would pay half of the curate’s package if we can pay the other half. 

Shortly after the Bishop made this offer we went into Christmas break, with some people leaving town and others preparing for the many upcoming services we were hosting, including Lessons and Carols, Christmas, the Martin Luther King interfaith service, and today’s annual meeting. In the weeks since the Bishop was here we created and passed a budget for 2018. We’ve all been hard at work tending to year end and new year items that need to be addressed in a timely manner. We have not had time to thoughtfully consider what the Bishop offered us. 

However the five members of the Vestry who will continue on next year, and I, were able to begin a conversation about this when we met for dinner last Wednesday night. With a little intentionality we managed a conversation that was considered, thoughtful, and respectful of the Bishop’s offer, of the differing views we each hold, and of the views that others have already shared on this idea. Some have raised valid points about money while others have, in equally valid ways, have called us to pay attention to God’s call to us. 

I believe, and some members of the Vestry said as much, that beginning this conversation from our most anxiety-filled place, which right now is money and finances, is not the place to begin. I believe this even as we are keenly aware of and respect the financial concern and recognize its validity. 

The vestry and I, having heard a number of viewpoints on the matter, are entering into a time of prayer, listening, and discerning where God is present and how God is calling us. In the next weeks and months the Vestry will invite opportunities for deeper and wider community listening, reflection, discerning. This is not a time to criticize one another, nor to speak derisively of this idea, other ideas, of the bishop nor of one another. We’re aiming for gracious listening, for gratitude and kindness, for creativity and imagination, and regardless of where we finally end up, that this may lead us all into a thin place, into the holy and sacredness of God’s desire and purpose for us, now, in this time and place.

I pray that we can see with our spiritual eyes, gazing through the veil to embrace the vision of ourselves that God sees in us, and then have the courage and inspiration to follow God, being willing to be risk takers, however that is revealed to us…and letting love build us up instead of knowledge puffing us up. 

Thus, with love and through love, of God and one another, let us see what good can come out of us.

a reflection on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Where is God?

When Dan and I were first married we went to Salt Lake City for a portion of our honeymoon, where he met my extended family. One of our first days in Salt Lake we drove east to Park City. It was a beautiful August day, and we leisurely wandered through the city and then drove through  the back roads and mountain side. As the afternoon was growing late we decided to head back to Salt Lake. I felt certain, based on a vague childhood memory, that there was a back-road over the mountain that would drop us into Salt Lake City. So we wandered on this dirt road for a bit, going deeper into the wilderness and over ever more challenging terrain. We were driving a little green Gremlin, or Pinto, I don’t remember, some old car my dad had. Whatever it was it was definitely not built for the rugged terrain we were on. Sure enough we bottomed out – took out some part of the undercarriage necessary for driving. This was in 1985, no cell phones, no GPS. We were good and stranded. Thankfully some young guys were driving their pickup through the back-roads and came to assist us. We had to leave the car in the woods and accept a ride to a gas station on the main highway where we called my dad and aunt to come get us. The next day we returned and pulled the car out of the rut. 
Sometimes one gets on a path and discovers that it is not the right path, yet, one just can’t figure out how to turn around and get to a better place. The people of Ninevah were in such a place – stuck in their self-destructive ways. Jonah comes and proclaims their demise and in doing so turns the course of events in a significant way. The people of Ninevah change their ways which provokes God to change God’s mind, thus sparing the people of Ninevah. Following God can lead to transformation. Jonah, angry and bitter that the people changed and God relented, went the other way turning from God and getting lost in the belly of beast.
The Psalm speaks of the steady presence of God.  Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians lists the ways in which the qualities of life pass away and change, but God’s presence is steady. And then in the Gospel we hear that God challenges people to pay attention, to recognize God’s call to humankind, to change our ways, to turn and to follow God. Our readings today provide us with examples or assurances of  God participating in the lives and actions of human beings.
Perhaps one reason the fisherfolk in the Gospel turn and follow Jesus may be that they remember the story from Jonah, of what happened, later, to Jonah when he fails to follow God and ends up in the belly of a whale. Perhaps, fearing that all could go wrong if they follow the wrong path, take the wrong road, these fishfolk-disciples-to-be take the chance on following God by following Jesus. Call it inspiration. Call it holy spirit inspired. Call it having the capacity to listen and the courage to follow, these fisherfolk come to learn that following Jesus is not only the way to go, BUT the way to LET GO. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians speaks of the many expectations that the people in Corinth must let go of. 
Which reminds me of a joke:
A disheveled, disoriented man stumbles across a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river.

He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister notices the man and says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?"

The man looks back and says, "Yes, preacher, I sure am."

The minister dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up.

"Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asks."Nooo, I didn't!" said the man.

The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up, and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?"

"Noooo, I have not, Reverend."
The preacher holds the man under for even longer and then brings him out of the water, and says, "My God, man, have you found Jesus yet?"

The man wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"
In a way our readings are asking us to let go of expectations that things must be a certain way or of finding God or Jesus in a particular way and just wonder, “How am I called? Or, to repeat the question from last week, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Letting go of preconceived expectations or biases, and wondering, Can anything good come out of me, you, us? Can any good come out of efforts to listen, to pray, out of being open to possibility? 
My response to these questions is a clear and certain, yes. Good can and will come from any and all efforts to try to faithfully follow God. 
This year, through our readings with the Gospel of Mark, we will focus on what it means to be disciples – to follow God. The Gospel of Mark will challenge us as it begs the question, “Where is God?” To follow God we need to be open to possibility, and through prayer, reflection, and discernment, as individuals and as a community, become open enough to hear God and courageous enough to follow.
Today you will find the annual parish report ready for you to take and read. The booklet is filled with reports from the various commissions and committees of the parish on the work we have done over the last year. It’s a record of the fine ministries that take place at Christ Church, of the ways in which we strive to listen to and follow God. Following this meeting you can attend the financial forum and hear the story of how we are striving to be faithful stewards of the gifts we have been given and use those gifts as God is calling us, to partner with God in bringing forth God’s kingdom now. 
Next week is the annual meeting. At that meeting we will elect new vestry members and have the opportunity to thank the outgoing vestry members. In addition we will thank Sean Jackman for his many years of ministry here as the Director of Music. We are entering a time of grieving, of celebrating, of grieving some more, and of change. Times like these naturally bring some anxiety and yet, used well, they can be times of curiosity and exploration, a time to ponder what God is calling up in us now. It is a time when we will be listening in some specific ways for what God is calling forth in and through us, a time that asks us to be wide open to possibility. Times like these invite communities into their highest potential for creativity, and explore in ways we never thought possible, just how it is that something good can come from us, from this church, for this time and place.

 So, as you prepare for the meeting next week, and as we prepare for the year ahead, remember our readings today and the call to discipleship. How might following Jesus come to mean something new, something life giving and transformational?
a reflection on the readings for Epiphany 3B: Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Psalm 62:5-12; Jonah 3:1-5, 10 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?

John Lewis, a Congressman from Georgia, has written memoirs of his days working with Martin Luther King, Jr. These books reflect Lewis’ deep spirituality and describe how faith, hope, and love have been the guiding principles of his life. In his book, “Across That Bridge, Life Lessons and a Vision for Change” Lewis tells a story from the early 1960’s, which I paraphrase here:

On day Lewis entered a restaurant and ordered a meal. As a black man he was not allowed in the restaurant and was asked to leave. He gently refused and tried again and again to order his meal. Finally the waitress brought him his meal. Just as he was about to take his first bite, the waitress proceeded to pour disinfectant down his back. She then poured water all over his meal. The restaurant owner proceeded to spray Lewis with an insecticide intended to kill cockroaches. The owner sprayed Lewis until his skin was burned. All the while Lewis offered no resistance. Instead he looked them in the eye, reminding them that he was a human being. Lewis believed that the sheer act of putting his body on the line, in peaceful resistance, manifested the reality that the love in his soul, had already overcome hate.

Lewis extended love to these two because in his mind’s eye he was seeing them as the innocent babies they once were. He saw them as one of God’s beloved.  Grounded in that deep love of God, Lewis understood that the hatred they were exhibiting was a shell, something learned over time. This shell of hate and anger covered their inherent goodness – a goodness equally bestowed by God on all human beings. Lewis lives to this day with the deep belief that:

“Life is like a drama, and any person who is truly committed to an ideal must believe in the authority of a divine plan. Not a rigid, micromanagement of human behavior that predicts every step of every individual, but a set of divine boundaries that governs the present, the past, and the future—a set of principles humankind does not have the capacity to override, no matter how far we attempt to stray from its dictates.” (Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change).

In the early 1960’s members of the Civil Rights Movement, were actively and consciously learning how to utilize the power of their faith to move society forward. They used faith as a shield that literally protected their spirit and sense of integrity against the false notion that anyone had the power to inflict pain, limitation, despair, or any condition upon anyone else.

They decided to actualize the belief that the hatred they experienced was not based on truth, but was an illusion in the minds of those who hated them. Through intentional spiritual formation from the teachings of Gandhi and Thoreau, Lewis and others like him, learned to access a deep and abiding sense of love, patience, and hope.  This spiritual practice was based on teachings about the nature of God and God’s call to the faithful who practice God’s teachings. 

Our readings this morning all focus on the idea of being called by God, and our response to that call. Samuel, although a small boy, is called to become a "trustworthy prophet of the Lord." The Gospel of John tells the story of Philip and Nathanael leaving everything behind to follow Jesus. And in the way that scripture has of aligning itself with the times we live in, where God’s word remains relevant and active, we hear in the Gospel reading, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Can anything good come out of poor people?
Can anything good come out of rich people?
Can anything good come out of black people?
Can anything good come out of people of color?
Can anything good come out of white people?
Can anything good come out me?
Can anything good come out you?
Can anything good come out of these times we live in?
Take a moment and ponder this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That real Nazareth where Jesus lived 2000 years ago, and the symbolic Nazareth which is the image of God calling us out of our comfort zones and into the deep waters of real life and ministry.
Do you think that anything good can come out of this church? 
Do you actually believe that God calls us and works through us?
 Do you believe that God has called you to this time and place? 
And that as a result God is calling something good to rise up out of you, out of me, out of us, out of this church? That we have a God given purpose and calling to this place and time? 
I do. 
I believe that with every breath I take and every prayer I say and everything I do. 
Still it’s true that sometimes one needs help discerning the authentic voice of God amongst the cacophony that seeks to distract one from one’s true path. 
Samuel seeks the guidance of Eli. People discerning a call to ordained ministry need to have that call confirmed by a community of people who, after spending a number of weeks and months in prayer and conversation, can affirm a call or redirect the person toward another understanding of their call. Each of us has a calling, and for many of us it manifests in the work we do every day, whether that is our paid profession, our volunteer work, or our role as a parent or grandparent, lawyer, doctor, nurse, teacher, musician, or priest.
Martin Luther King, Jr. who will commemorate later today, knew his call from God. A minister and an activist for social justice, particularly as one who spoke out against racism and prejudice, Dr. King literally put his life on the line to follow God. King worked hard for the survival of people of color, to strive to form the beloved community - for all of society to recognize the inherent value of all human beings – loved by God and worthy of equal opportunities in all avenues of life.  Dr. King points us to consider how our call, like his call, is a movement toward the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, or what it means to love God, love self, and love others, that good did come out of Nazareth, and good can come out of us. 
 Our call may not look as extreme or as intense as Martin Luther King, Jr’s, nor as personal as Samuel’s, Jesus’, or the disciples’, but that doesn’t mean it is less important to the kingdom of God. How we manifest God’s love in the world by bringing forth as much good as we are able, good that manifests as equality for all, dignity for everyone, respect and kindness, deep listening and honoring the integrity of one another, by willingly putting ourselves on the line, in love, God’s love, will allow God to reveal in and through us, that good does indeed come out of Nazareth, out you, out of me, and out of this parish in this place and time.  Because anything to the contrary of this belief is an illusion. God’s will always prevails and that truth is found in love. 

A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 2B: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

Friday, January 05, 2018

Crossing the Bridge into Ordinary, Holy Work

Rabbi Jeffery Salkin, author of the book, “Being God’s Partner,”…tells this story:
“A few years ago, a young taxi driver (named Mike) drove me to John F. Kennedy Airport, on Long Island. After a few minutes of conversation, I discovered that Mike had belonged to my synagogue years before I came to the community.
‘So, rabbi,’ he asked, while we sat in heavy traffic, ‘What do you say to a Jew like me who hasn’t been to a synagogue since his bar mitzvah ceremony?’
Thinking a moment, I realized that in Hassidic lore, the baal aqalah (the wagon driver) is an honored profession. So I said, ‘We could talk about your work.’
‘What does my work have to do with religion?’
‘Well, we choose how we look at the world and at life. You’re a taxi driver. But you are also a piece of the tissue that connects all humanity. You’re taking me to the airport. I’ll go to a different city and give a couple of lectures that might touch or help or change someone. I couldn’t have gotten there without you. You help make that connection happen.’
‘I heard you on your two-way radio after you drop me off, you’re going to pick up a woman from the hospital and take her home. That means that you’ll be the first non-medical person she encounters after being in a hospital. You will be a small part of her healing process, an agent in her re-entry into the world of health.’
‘You may then pick up someone from the train station who has come home from seeing a dying parent. You may take someone to the house of the one he or she will ask to join in marriage. You’re a connector, a bridge builder. You’re one of the unseen people who make the world work as well as it does. That is holy work. You may not think of it this way, but yours is a sacred mission.”
We have just celebrated the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God, Emmanuel, of the one who has come to live among us, the Word made flesh. We celebrated the sacred occasion of this birth in our Christmas services. Last Sunday our scripture readings raised up the idea that the Word of God has always been with God and with us and always will be, God expresses God’s self into the world in and through human beings, a commitment God made to us through Jesus. And today, in the Gospel of Mark we hear that the child Jesus is already grown, and is being baptized in the river Jordan. His ministry as the Holy Expressive Word of God in the Gospel of Mark begins – for the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove – and we hear that he is God’s beloved. Jesus is the bridge builder for us, the way in which God comes to know us more deeply and we come to know God. Jesus shows us how to be bridge builders as well, building beloved communities of people who care for others in this world.
The Holy Spirit, the active energy of God is manifesting God’s desire into the baptism of Jesus, into the world, into our lives, in and through us. And, by virtue of our baptism, the Holy Spirit infuses us with her energy, guides our work, and enables us to partner with God. The Holy Spirit is means by which the bridge is built between humanity and God. The Holy Spirit infuses our efforts, everyone of our endeavors to help others, with God’s energy. 
It is God who has chosen us, chosen to let our hands be God’s hands, to let our feet take us where God desires, and put into our mouths the words of compassion that God would have us say. But, though it be God’s desire it still requires us to respond, to do, to act, to participate with God. 
The Acts of the Apostles gives us a glimpse into the life of the early church and the mystical reality of God acting in creation and the response of humanity to God. Into that glimpse this morning we find St. Paul baptizing a group of people in Ephesus, and we hear that the, “Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke…” This is the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s desire becoming active in us, motivating us to action, into crossing the bridge.
Maxine F. Dennis, in her reflection titled, “Of Human Hands” wrote, “Cashiering in a supermarket may not seem like a very rewarding position to most. But to me it is. You see, I feel that my job consists of a lot more than ringing up orders, taking people’s money, and bagging their groceries. The most important part of my job is not the obvious. Rather it’s the manner in which I present myself to others that will determine whether my customers will leave the store feeling better or worse because of their brief encounter with me. For by doing my job well I know I have a chance to do God’s work too. Because of this, I try to make each of my customers feel special. While I’m serving them, they become the most important people in my life.”
The most important work we do each day is to consider how we are doing God’s work by living into our baptismal covenant – how we are loving God, loving self, and loving others. How we are working toward justice and the dignity of all people, how we are treating everyone as we wish to be treated. How do we encounter Christ in one another, in friend and stranger alike. 
Each of us spends our time doing holy work, a sacred mission. You may not think of it that way, whatever it is you do with each day, but it is. It is sacred because every day you encounter other human beings in some capacity, whether the person is your neighbor or a stranger in the grocery store, a colleague at work or a friend in school, every day we encounter others – and in that process, how we treat others is a measure of our engagement in the sacred work of God. During this year, as we read and reflect on the Gospel of Mark we will be pondering the question Mark asks – “Where is God?” Today’s passage from Acts suggests that we should be on the lookout for mystical experiences, sacramental opportunities, in which we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, find ways to do God’s work in our work. Sometimes we will encounter God in one another. Other times we encounter God in a moment of time or in the words of a complete stranger. 
Doing God's work will happen whenever we endeavor to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the needy. God’s work happens whether we notice it or not. This year our aim is to focus on learning how to notice and become more deeply aware of God’s presence in the moment, to hear how God is calling us “Beloved,” and to respond with greater intentionality, as God’s love, working to heal broken lives in the world around us. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

That's my story and I'm Sticking With It....

A friend of mine is fond of telling a story about her life and then concluding with, “That’s my story and I’m sticking with it!”
A few years ago my husband, son, and I were watching the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the version that came in 2000 with Jim Carry as the Grinch. I remember thinking that they’d  changed the story, a lot, in order to make a full length movie out of it. It was significantly different from the version I saw as a child. Then our son said, this is the only version of the story he remembers. Same story, two versions…
Christmas also has two stories, two versions. We have the commercial one with Santa and parties, shopping and sales, and gift giving, and advertisements announcing that this is the most wonderful time of the year. Although it’s not for everyone. 
I have had Christmas’s when I could not afford to buy a single gift. I know what it feels like when the Christmas I am celebrating is not the Christmas our culture describes. That year challenged me to explore the meaning of Christmas while overcoming depression and sorrow over the circumstances of life, and make my peace with it.

That year I leaned into the original Christmas story. We went to church on Christmas Eve and I immersed myself in the mystery of God’s love revealed in music, prayer, and story. The story that  tells us about the birth of Jesus, of a woman brave enough to work with God, to take huge risks to bear a child and bring God’s love into the world in human flesh. Of a God who loves creation, loves human kind so much that God joins with us in our sorrows and our joys, and works with us to care for the world. 
A few years ago an amazing story appeared in an Alaska newspaper.  A man named Tom was out with a charter group on his 62 foot fishing vessel when four juvenile black-tailed deer swam directly toward his boat. “Once the deer reached the boat,’ he said, ‘ the four began to circle the boat, looking directly at us. We could tell right away that the young bucks were distressed.
I opened up my back gate and we helped the typically skittish and absolutely wild animals onto the boat. In all my years fishing, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. 
Once on board, the deer collapsed with exhaustion, shivering. We headed for the harbor. When we reached the dock the first buck we had pulled from the water hopped onto the dock, looked back as if to say, ‘Thank-you,’ and disappeared into the forest.
After some prodding and assistance, two more followed, but the smallest deer needed a bit more help. (for which he was put into a wheel barrow and transported from the boat to the dock).
Finally, with the help of three humans, the last buck got to its feet and ran off to join the others. …”
The beauty of stories like this is that they remind us that there is a thin line between creation, human beings, and the God who created all of us. And sometimes that line dissolves and we see the world as God might see it. A world called to live in harmony and peace. A world in which the true Christmas story merges with the commercial one, and we see the many gifts of life with which we’ve been blessed. 
On this most holy of nights/days we celebrate the reality that God is with us. In the mystery that is God, God has chosen to dwell in and within all creation, and most particularly in human life. 
This is our Christmas story, of God active in the world through the birth of Jesus. It is story that reminds us that how we live our lives reveals the fullness of God in the world – particularly when we live with compassion, kindness, gentleness, and love toward all. 
The true gift of Christmas cannot be placed into a box and wrapped with paper and ribbon and bows. The truest versions of the story remind us that the meaning of Christmas is found in the heart.

And, as Christians, the true gift of Christmas is made manifest in the one whose life we celebrate, the one who comes as the fullness of God’s love, to walk with us through this journey of life. To be with us in our joys and our sorrows, to be ever present in our life story. 

Even when life is at its most challenging, whether we are crazy busy, or feeling bleak and hopeless, or excited, or bored, or whatever life feels like -  somehow, by the grace of God revealed in the simplest of ways, we can experience the gift of life and the presence of God’s abiding love for us. It’s true that often God’s abiding love for us is made manifest in a simple act of kindness that you extend to someone, or they extend to you. The meaning of Christmas is God’s love revealed in the world in and through human beings, in the kindness and love we show for others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending the sick, caring for all people. 
Into the darkness of a winter’s night, God gave all creation God’s most precious gift of love, Emmanuel – God with us, the Incarnation, the birth of Christ. The mystery of the Christmas story, of that precious gift of love, is a paradox – for the darkest night is also the source and the place of new life, of love, of God manifesting the fullness of God’s self into the world.

In this Christmas season, let the compassion of God fill us with hope. May we recognize, in our life’s story, the gift of how deeply God loves us, just the way we are. And may we love others with that same generous gift of love. 

That’s my Christmas story, and I’m sticking with it. 

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

For Such a Time as This

Perhaps the most profound challenge I have faced in the eighteen years that I have been ordained is my experience with the people who come asking for assistance. Some of these people haunt me to this day, either because I helped them or because I could not. How does one help a teenager, perhaps homeless, who comes to the church seeking a place to get warm, sleep awhile, and maybe get some food? I gave him a bag full of coffee hour muffins from the freezer, invited him to sit in the warm sanctuary, where he laid down and fell asleep on a pew, and I kept watch over him until I had to leave. He rode off on a bike, and I never saw him again. 

How does one help an out of control woman who comes panhandling after worship on Sunday morning, moving through the crowd of parishioners having coffee in the narthex? How to respond appropriately to her erratic, perhaps psychotic angry yelling? I offered her what I had, but it wouldn’t do, she wanted more and more, and left, angry, and yelling obscenities. I never saw her again either. 

And yet I am, you are, we all are called for such a time as this, called to respond to the needs of the world, to be the hands and heart of Jesus, to be a reflection of God’s love, to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison, to tend to the least of those in our midst. In the words of Isaiah this morning, to help rebuild the broken state of the world, to offer hope, to be generous, to rebalance the iniquities that allow for poverty, homelessness, inequality in all its forms including our long history with racism, and the newly rising tide of allegations, abuse, sexual misconduct  and violence against women and children. 

For such a time as this, we are called. 

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, along with the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA church, Elizabeth Eaton, have called us for such a time as this, to pray, fast, and act. Every month, on the 21st day of the month, beginning last May, through December 21 of next year, we are to set aside time to pray, to fast, and to act.

Why the 21st of the month? That is the date the SNAP funds, food stamps, run out for families because we do not give them enough to buy food for an entire month. Erin and I have noticed a marked increase in visits to our food pantry from the 21st of the month until the beginning of the next month. But, lest you think that food stamps actually help people, I assure that the needs are far greater than what is given. There is virtually no assistance for people over the age of 18, everyone is expected to get a job. Don’t give me statistics on the number of people who reportedly scam the system, because I can assure you that there is a backstory that the statistics do not reveal. People are not given enough food stamps to live on for a month, they are required to find jobs, but we do nothing to help them get jobs. There are no regional initiatives to respond to the lack of jobs, and if one is lucky enough to find a job, it's usually minimum wage and we do nothing to assist with childcare, transportation, gas, or car insurance. 

And so, on the 21st of each month we pray for a more just world. We fast in solidarity with the hungry. And we seek ways to act to bring forth God’s love.
At our food pantry we get a few people now and then who want to take advantage of us. Our aim is to feed people, as many as possible in as dignified a way as possible. And so we hold people accountable to self-manage and respect others who come. We tell them, take what you need but leave food for others. And even those who have scammed us from time to time hold to this principle,  when we tell them that is our sole requirement - take what you need, and leave some for others. 

In fact our food pantry has become so generous that even those who are recipients of the food are beginning to help out. For Thanksgiving food distribution two of the pantry recipients came and spent all of Monday and Tuesday managing the food distribution, helping people get what they need and leave something for others. These two are coming back this week to help with Christmas food distribution. For Thanksgiving we ran out of turkeys twice. I went to Kroger, the one on the north side, where the manager allows us to purchase as many turkeys as we need, and to get them at the sale price. I bought 10 more turkeys, and while standing in line to pay for them, the woman in front of me donated $20 for the turkeys, because they were for the food pantry. 

For such a time as this. In the season of joy and glad tidings, of shopping and gift giving, and holiday parties. For such a time as this, when loss and despair heighten, and grief takes hold in a deeper way, contrasted with an often false message of cheer. For such a time as this, to be generous, to care for others, to work to right the injustices of the world. For such a time as this to fast, pray, act.

This Thursday night, December 21, we will gather with our local sister church, St. Paul Lutheran, for a Longest Night service, to participate in our call to common mission, to pray, fast, act. We will pray for the many ways people are grieving today, for the loss of loved ones, for the loss of hope, for the chipping away at our civil liberties and hard won efforts to right injustices. This month we are asked specifically to pray, which does not take away the incentive to fast and to act, but focuses our efforts primarily on prayer. We are to pray for one of the 17 UN Sustainable Goals to create greater balance in the world, to reduce poverty, increase education and employment and the one we will emphasize - bringing greater equality in all its forms. We will sing, meditate, anoint and pray for healing and wholeness, and share the simple meal of Holy Communion.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is at work in every human endeavor to bring forth justice, peace, and love. God is in every act of compassion and generosity that human beings manifest. God comes to us in the incarnation, in the word made flesh, in the life of Jesus and every time care for others, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit. 

A reflection on one of the reading for Advent 3B, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Saturday, November 25, 2017

I will with God's help....uncomplicating the complicated

I was baptized when I was nine years old. I have vivid memories of the baptism itself, of being terrified, as I was fully immersed three times in a deep pool of water, and my relief that I did not drown. But I have no memory of any preparation for that baptism. I don’t recall anyone talking to me that morning or the day before about the meaning of baptism and how it would impact my life.

In the early church people spent two years preparing for baptism. Then, only adults were baptized and the two years were spent unlearning one way of understanding the world - particularly that the emperor was God - and replacing that worldview with an understanding of who Jesus was and the Christian understanding of God.

Now, when I meet with parents and Godparents of an infant who is to be baptized, I spend about an hour in conversation with them followed by a rehearsal. 

Baptism is the beginning of one’s journey of faith. The first thing baptism does is “name” us. In baptism we all share the same last name, “Christian,” because in baptism we are named and become a member of the family and body of Christ.

One learns what it means to live as a Christian through being part of a faith community and through facing the challenges of life, making decisions based on the values of the Christian faith. In the world today it can be confusing to know what Christian values we are to live from. The baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer offers Episcopalians some clarity on this. 

The covenant asks a number of questions including: Will you share? Will you treat others with dignity and respect? Will you learn about the Christian faith and will you worship in community; and our response is, “I will with God’s help.” We are not asked to journey alone, we are invited into a community of other people of faith and supported throughout our lives by the presence of God. Everything we do, we do with God’s help.

The conversation I have with people preparing for baptism covers three renunciations and three affirmations. Each person preparing for baptism is asked to renounce evil and affirm a new way of life. My hope is that people have a good sense of what they are renouncing and affirming in these vows. The first question I ask is, “What is evil? What does evil mean to you?” To a person this question, the idea of evil, is challenging. We live in a world that is full of evil but we are losing the ability to talk about evil from a spiritual perspective. This is because what gets defined as evil is culturally bound in time and place. Binding evil within the confines of a culture and a time tends to minimize evil and eventually, as times change, people reject that which has been defined as “evil.” 

In baptism we are reminded that evil is a spiritual force that pulls us away from God, causes harm to other people and causes harm to ourselves. I define evil as that which causes broken relationship in all its forms - broken relationship with God, broken relationship with the earth, broken relationship with other people, and a broken relationship with ourselves. How are you living with and struggling through broken relationships like these? What does it feel like when you are living with a broken relationship with God? What does it feel like when you are living with a broken relationship with another person? In what ways are you broken within yourself? Do you feel bad about who you are? Can you think about these broken places and recognize the evil forces at play in your life? Growing into being a mature Christian requires that we think about the broken places in our lives and work to heal them and make amends. 

Secondly, the parents and Godparents on behalf of the candidate, are asked to affirm a new life in Christ. What does this mean? What does “savior” mean to you? Again, “Savior” is one of those complicated Christian words that gets culturally bound up in time and place. The end result may diminish the meaning of savior in one’s life. I have often said that I think God called me into the priesthood in order to save me. By this I mean, God was saving me from myself, from my own propensity toward self destructive ways of diminishing myself. As a priest, as a wife, as a mother, I have felt called to do the hard work to be the best person I can. I have worked to have greater self-awareness of what pushes my buttons and how I can be more reflective and responsive and less reactive and emotional. I have gone to therapy and spiritual direction and worked to recognize my feelings and use them appropriately. Years ago, disenfranchised from church, I chose to return to church for the specific reason of having a community with whom to grow and mature as a person of faith. One cannot be a Christian by one’s self. One needs to be in relationship with a community of people who are facing life’s challenges so that we walk the journey together. Becoming a mature Christian and working to have healthy relationships is the bedrock of Christianity. 

This is why we baptize people on a Sunday morning in the primary worship service - so that baptism is central to our lives, central to who we are as a community, and so that the person being baptized understands that they are being welcomed into relationship, into community. 

In a few moments we will baptize Era Alden and welcome him into the body of Christ, into a history, into a faith community, and he takes on our name, Christian. May we do everything we can to support Ezra in his life in faith, as we have done for his parents and grandparents and for one another. May we do all of this with God’s help. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A remedy for spiritual malaise.....

I’m tired. 
I’m tired of the onslaught of violence in the world: guns and mass murders; abuse of people of color; abuse of women; abuse of children; abuse of money; and on top of all of it, the seemingly endless hypocrisy. I’m tired of being in a rut and feeling stuck. I’m tired of the world as it is and yearn for what the world could be. I’m tired of feeling like I try, but I am just spinning my wheels, like tires stuck in mud. I use to spend the month of November and the days leading up to Thanksgiving thinking about gratitude and those things that I could be thankful for in life. And, although there are things that I am truly, deeply grateful for, the effort to list them feels false and trite to be as if I were trying to hide my head in the sand and pretend that all is well. Last week I asked us to consider the state of our souls. If I really look deeply, I can only say, my soul is agitated because I want to make a difference in the world, I want the world to be a less agitating place. 
This week in the Gospel of Matthew we have come to the third in a series of difficult parables. Two weeks ago we had the story about a wicked servant who mistreats other servants, then last week, the story about the ten maidens and what happens to those who are unprepared, and today a story about the workers and a corrupt boss. One worker turns his five “talents” into ten, the other turns his two talents into four, and the third who buried his one talent and returns only the one, saying; “Hey boss, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 
So, let’s take another look at the third worker. He knows his boss is wicked, evil, and greedy, and he calls him on it. Whereas the first two did exactly what was expected of them without question, the third person calls it like it is, has the courage to speak up against the corruption. This third person shows courage, integrity, and perhaps a reasonable sense of fear because he knows that he will be ostracized for speaking up and telling the truth. 
The deeper challenge of this parable is played out in the news today. It’s almost mind boggling how many people, who are tired of burying the injustices of their lives, are speaking up. Now people are finding the courage to speak out against racism, sexual exploitation, and gun violence, people speaking out against violence and injustice in all its forms. Every day. More people. It begs the questions, What is happening? Who are we? and What are we supposed to do? 
As Episcopalians the baptismal covenant affords us clear guidelines on who we are and how we are to stand for justice.  In fact next week we will have a baptism and we will renew our baptismal vows. These vows ground us, reminding us how we are to live as people of faith, not passively, but courageously. The baptismal covenant reminds us that we are:
To persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. To  proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving one’s neighbor as  one’s self. To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. In other words, we are supposed to be the third worker. But the baptismal covenant also reminds us that we are not alone because to each of these questions the response is: “I will with God’s help.” 
Whenever I am feeling particularly exhausted I run on the treadmill. It’s a paradox that cardio exercise actually gives me more energy, but it does. It also relieves stress. Likewise when I am feeling spiritually exhausted I have to do spiritual cardio - I have to take more time for prayer and silence. I have to open myself up to God and trust that God will help. 
I fear there is no quick remedy for the tiredness that I feel. There is only the steady determination that prayer and action will move me into a new place. 
So perhaps, if you feeling the kind of malaise that I am feeling, there are some things one can do this week to pray and act: 
Come and support the Holiday Market this afternoon. The Holiday Market began 7 years ago, during the economic slump, as a way to support local artists, as a response to the shop small initiative, and as a response to the crazy rush of holiday shopping and consumerism that builds from Thanksgiving into Christmas. Our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit, is revealed through sharing our building with absolutely nothing gained for ourselves but the opportunity to be gracious and hospitable. So come and greet people who walk into our building and tell them about Christ Church - that the Holiday Market is our gift to artists and one way that we are making a difference in the world, enabling local artists to share their talent. Start your Christmas shopping by supporting these artists. Come to the Evensong and worship with a traditional night prayer set to music. Come and support Chapel Day’s bake sale. Come and support the musicians and enjoy a glass of wine while listening to some fine music. Share this with your friends and invite them to come too.
Come and participate in the Pray/Fast/Act this Tuesday night, which will be a combined initiative with the Centering Prayer group and our monthly invitation to participate in the Presiding Bishop’s call for us to Pray, Fast, and then act for justice, especially environmental justice. Come and take time in silence, listening to God, sharing a simple meal, and pondering ways we can be better stewards of the earth. Invite others who are looking for ways to respond to their anxiety and who want to make a difference in the world. 
Sign up to help with the Parents Night Out for Chapel Day on Saturday night, Dec. 2. Spend some time with the children of our preschool and get to know the parents. Help them experience our gratitude that they are here and that we hope that their experience of Christ Church is good.

Be an ambassador for this church every where you go. Share that we are creative and caring, working to do our part to restore some sense of justice in the world. Talk about Blessings in a Backpack, the food pantry, warm clothes for men, Creating Hope International, the League of Women Voters, AA, martial arts and stretching, the community garden, the labyrinth and pet memorial garden, and the many ways we share and care and strive to make a difference through prayer and action.

Maybe a little time on the spiritual treadmill will do the trick, unsticking what's stuck, relieving the sense of malaise, and reinvigorating a tired soul. 

A reflection on the Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30) in Proper 28A

Nothing is Impossible

Twelve years ago I suffered a life threatening illness. From a fractured tooth came an abscess, and then the abscess infected the bone in m...