"Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.... Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting."

Frederick Buechner

Saturday, May 28, 2016

In the end, no contest

The Civil War, fought from 1861-1865, intended to determined how these United States were going to live together: would they be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government AND, to what degree would all persons be equal or would it continue to be the largest nation of slave holders in the world? 625,000 people died in the Civil War, more than in any other war this country has fought. The war left this country broken from the loss of life, the bitterness over the ideologies that led to the battle, the disagreement about human rights and who is valued, and disagreements over who can live freely in this country. President Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, named slavery as the cause of the war and held the entire country accountable and complicit in the sin of slavery, both the North and the South. In many ways we as a nation are still wrestling with unresolved conflict and moral guilt for the circumstances of the Civil War: the kidnapping of innocent people taken them from their homes in Africa and sold into a life of bondage in foreign lands, for decades of raping slave women, and for breaking up families by selling off men, women, and children, for profit and to prevent uprisings. The layers of guilt, denial, and indignation are deep, unconscious for many of us living today. There remains a lingering racial tension and unresolved guilt in the soul of this nation.

Efforts have been made to help us, help this country reconcile the tragedy and deaths of the civil war, to help us be one nation under God. Shortly after the war ended cities around the country offered observances, memorials for the soldiers who had fought and died. The first recorded observance was in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866. By 1868 a national day of observance was called for and held on May 30. Decoration Day, as it was called, was held at Arlington Cemetery where 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers. By 1890 Decoration Day was an official state holiday. Eventually it became known as Memorial Day, remembering the soldiers of the Civil War. However, with the loss of life from two World Wars, Memorial Day became a day of remembering all soldiers who lost their lives in battle, defending the freedom of people in this country and around the world. May 30 was the day of observance until 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving national holidays to Monday, thus making Memorial Day to the last Monday in May.  While Memorial Day is a civic holiday, for people of faith it raises valid questions. How are we continuing the work that the Civil War inaugurated by working to reconcile the sin of slavery and the lingering aftermath of racism?

In our reading this morning from First Kings, Elijah has set up a contest, a battle of the wills between the god Baal and Yahweh, God of the Hebrews. The region was starving from years of drought, and the people had started praying to Baal, the god of fertile soil, dew and rain. The idea behind the contest was to prove to the Hebrews that only Yahweh/God has real power, only God can change lives and transform the world, Baal was just a false idol. Elijah set up two fire pits and filled each of them with water. Through the water Elijah called for fire. The contest was designed to raise questions - there are many voices for God, how to know the true voice of God? How do false idols pull one away from the true God? The pit dedicated to Baal could not produce fire, but the pit dedicated to God brought forth a huge fire. Yahweh/God won! And the people responded with trust, faith, and fidelity. 

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians is asking a similar questions - what false idols pull at one’s fears, and how can one respond with confidence to the authentic voice of God? The dilemma for the Galatians was over long held Hebrew traditions and how these traditions were bumping up against new people, Gentiles, who had no history with the traditions. In the end, Paul and the church, decided that these long held traditional practices, like circumcision and dietary restrictions, were not that important. Ultimately it was determined that “love” is what makes one a Christian.

Our readings today speak into the lingering remnants of the corporate soul of people in the United States, right into our ongoing contest over ideologies and belief - which is essentially what do freedom and equality, the foundational values of this country, really mean? 

While I can fall victim to false idols like prestige, appearances, money, youth, ultimately for me, it’s no contest at all. Our scripture offers a very clear and unconditional basis for the values I hold most dear. Jesus says it simply when he summarizes all 613 commandments in the Bible this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. To truly live into the Good News of Jesus means I must always work on myself, to recognize how prejudice and bias reside in me, and to do what I can reconcile it and live more fully into equality and freedom for all. 

A reflection on the readings for Proper 4C: 1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39 and Galatians 1:1-12

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Love, maturing in faith

When my daughter was young she had a habit of taking her time getting ready to leave the house. This was not much of a problem when she was really small and I could just pick her up when it was time to go. But as she grew older the challenge of leaving the house in time to get anywhere when we needed too became almost impossible. One day when she was a teenager Dan and I were at an art fair and we saw a handprinted plaque that read, “I am mostly good at sleeping and wish there was a future in it.” We bought it for her. Eventually we started telling her that we had to be someplace earlier than we actually had to be. So for example we’d tell her we had to be some place at 9am when we really had to be there at 9:30. We called this Jessi time. That pattern worked fairly well for a number of years. So imagine my surprise when my grown daughter started being ready on time and arriving places on time. I couldn’t believe it, I thought for sure she’d never outgrow her tendency to be late. 

One of the gifts of having older children is the pleasure of seeing one’s child mature into his or her own person, to become who they are, no longer the child who needs parental guidance.

As Christians we often speak of God as a parental figure, God the father. We often use language that describes us as children of God. I, personally, am not fond of this kind of language. To me it runs the risk of infantilizing human beings and teaching us that we do not need to grow into a mature faith.

However, if we think of ourselves as children of God who are learning how to become our own person, conscious of being shaped and formed by God’s love as we grow into a mature adult faith, then I can manage this image of “Child of God.” The Christian life is a growth process of maturing in faith.

What does a mature faith look like? Karen Armstrong, in her book, The Spiral Staircase, writes about the difference between faith as a belief and faith as a practice. Armstrong writes that religion is not about having to believe or accept certain propositions, instead religion is about doing things that change a person. In her book on Islam she describes how Muslims are not expected to accept a creed, rather they are required to perform rituals, prayers, pilgrimages, and fasts which are designed to bring forth a personal transformation. The religious life is supposed to transform how one lives and who one is through what one does. God’s action in the resurrection of Jesus is an act of transformation, of new life. Our readings in the Easter season help us understand how we as Christians are called to live in order that our lives can be transformed.

Acts tells the story of the emerging early church, of the disciples learning to do the work of Christ in the world – of caring for others and sharing the Good News of God’s love for all people. It also shows the struggle of the disciples, the tension of spreading out into the world, of encountering new and different people. Acts tells the story of a maturing people of faith, learning to navigate the complexities of life.

The grace of the book of Revelation is its ability to offer comfort to suffering people. Although it is written in coded poetic language, which makes it pretty confusing to most of us, the people around the world who experience persecution tend to understand it. The words assure the suffering of God’s great love for all humanity. This is not a story that predicts the calamities that will befall humanity at the end of the world. The Book of Revelation is story of love in the midst of sorrow, grace in response to fear, hope in response to loss and oppression.

In the Gospel of John Jesus says he is giving a new commandment, that we love one another. But it is not new from the sense that no one before this moment had been commanded by God to love. What’s new about it, in the way Jesus means it, is its  intention, the action, the doing, of love. To love more than just this person or that person, and instead to love all people. This is a commandment to action, it is not a commandment to believe the right thing, but to do the right thing, love. This love is not an emotion nor is it a feeling. It is a verb. To love means to respect the dignity of every human being. To love means to struggle through the challenges of life trusting that in the end one will find new life. To love means to share the gifts of life with one another, food, clothing, shelter, money. To love means to see the good in others. To love means to hold one’s self and others accountable and to seek reconciliation when necessary, to living in right relationship with each other. 

A mature faith is willing to take a step into the unknown, take the risk to do what God is calling, to reach out and love others as God loves. To love in this way is a new commandment because in doing so we too are made new again. 

a reflection on the readings for Easter 5C: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tabitha, somebody indeed

One day a rabbi, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed in before the ark, fell to his knees, and started beating his chest, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”

The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by the rabbi’s passion, joined the rabbi on his knees. “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”

The custodian, watching from the corner, couldn’t restrain himself, either. He joined the other two on their knees calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”

At which point the rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!” (“How Can I Help” by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman).

Who are the nobody’s? Who goes unseen? 

At clergy conference this week, as part of the Diocesan year of Race and Diversity Reconciliation, we were invited to reflect on the book, “Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter,” written by Lindsay Hardin Freeman. Lindsay facilitated the conference, so it was extra special to be with the author. Here at the church our Tuesday Bible study group read this book and had many lively discussions because the women in the Bible are bold, sometimes outrageous, and take huge risks for their faith. That said, many of the women in the Bible were nobodies, often un-named. However, some of the women are named and a few have a voice. Ninety-three women speak in the Bible, for a total of 14,056 words. To put this in context, a typical state of the union address is 7000 words. Still, it’s remarkable that the words of women are recorded at all. No other religion records the words of nearly 100 women. By comparison, the Bible is quite amazing in lifting up the nobodies and giving them voice. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus tells us. 

Our reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles names a woman, although she does not speak. Tabitha is an Aramaic name which is translated as Dorcas in Greek. Both names mean gazelle, strong, swift, graceful. Tabitha, Dorcas, is a strong, gifted woman. She makes clothes and serves the poor. She is loved by all and her death has caused tremendous grief in the community. Peter is summoned to help, and following other examples in the Bible, Peter raises Tabitha from the dead and brings her back to life. You’d think that getting her life back would cause Tabitha to say something. But if she did, no one thought to record it. She’s named, but voiceless. 

The other area we reflected on at clergy conference was racism. We were asked, what do we need to do to address racism in our lives? One thing we said we need to do is recognize when racism is rearing up. In particular we need to learn how to recognize our prejudice - whether it’s in the words we use or the attitudes we hold or simply in our inability to see others for who they are. This discussion at clergy conference reminded me of a presentation that was made in the Trinity Institute’s Saturday morning session in January, which we broadcasted at St. Paul’s Lutheran here in Dearborn. The speaker, Kelly Brown Douglas, an Episcopal priest and Professor and Director of the Religion Department at Goucher College in Baltimore, talked about the systemic connection in this country of black bodies being seen as slaves to black bodies being seen as criminals - that people, including police officers do not see black bodies as human beings - they are just bodies, once dehumanized as slaves and now criminals. As just body’s they are essentially nobody, objectified as slaves or criminals. Think about it. Do you see other people as human beings with feelings and integrity or as body’s, as nobody? Turns our that most people have no idea, no awareness what so ever. 

Someone at clergy conference mentioned that they struggle every time they see a woman in traditional Muslim attire - this person automatically wonders if there is a bomb hidden under the hijab and long robes. They recognize that this is not a rational thought, that it is racist, but it is the first thought they have. Others commented on locking their car doors when they approach certain intersections or when young black males are near by. Understanding the unconscious ways we have absorbed racism into our beings is crucial to learning how might come to see all people as fully human. 

In today’s text we never hear Tabitha speak. We do not hear her experience through her words. Was she happy that people missed her so much that they wanted her to return to them? Was she pleased that Peter raised her from the dead? Or did she think, rats! I was finally getting some real rest, and now you’ve come and disturbed me…? Okay, I’m being a little silly, but the point remains, we don’t know what she would have said about this experience because she is voiceless. 

Despite Tabitha’s silence, what one might take away from Peter raising Tabitha from the dead, is the assurance that whenever one is done in and feeling like a nobody,  unable to see one’s self for who one really is, there is the real possibility of God’s presence. God comes when we least expect it and like a helping hand pulls one up, that one might live. For in being seen, heard, and loved, for who one really is, beloved of God, one cannot be a no-body, devoiced, dehumanized, objectified. Instead, made in God’s image, beloved of God, each person is fully human, a somebody, made whole and fully alive. 

a reflection on Acts 9:36-43, for Easter 4C

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Curious, Thomas....

Early on a gray and dreary morning I made my usual long walk to the elementary school where I was in the sixth grade. The entrance to the school was odd, below ground level by a few stairs, with open sides where kids would sit at street level but could then jump down to the front doors. That morning I was lost in my thoughts as I walked from the stairs to the doors, and so I was startled when a couple of boys jumped off of the side walls and on to me, attempting to tackle me to the ground. I was completely taken off guard, but somehow I managed to untangle myself from these boys and hurry into the school. The episode left my heart racing as I walked down the hall and into class. Perhaps having three younger brothers who were prone to roughhousing inoculated me a bit to the surprise of the boys jumping me. Still, when I think of that moment, I remember feeling surprised, violated, humiliated at being jumped on, and even some shame because I did not seeing it coming. 

Shame, humiliation, violence, are common experiences in our lives, although the degree of these varies from person to person. Sometimes these are physical, sometimes they are verbal, psychological or even spiritual attacks to our person. Sometimes they are just perceived attacks, vulnerable as we are we can perceive something relatively meaningless as something greater than it is. The perception of humiliation and shame is enough to shut one down, or as is often the case, it might make one angry. Transferring my feelings of shame and humiliation into anger is what happens to me. Anger is a trigger emotion for me, telling me that I need to step back and evaluate a situation. I know it takes time for the feelings to settle down, for the emotional reactivity to cool off, before I can begin to see a situation with more perspective. But when I do this well I am like an investigator on a television crime show, I want to know more and I begin by asking questions of myself. Why am I reacting so strongly? Is this really about me? What is underneath the anger? Shame? Fear? What has been triggered from my past, igniting old feelings that are more about a past experience than they are about this one? I work to move into a position of inquiry and out of a position of judgement and self righteous indignation. 

So imagine how the disciples are feeling on this Sunday, a week after Jesus has been crucified and then resurrected. On that first day they were huddled in the upper room, still mourning Jesus’ death and feeling angry with themselves for betraying him. Failing is painful. No one likes to be a failure, even if Jesus predicted they’d abandon him. They were also probably feeling a little self-righteous, because at least they were still alive and had avoided crucifixion themselves. Which, of course, made it worse. Who knows? We don’t have a record of their thoughts and feelings that early morning. All we know is that the women went to the tomb and learned that Jesus had risen and they ran off to tell the disciples, who did not believe them. The disciples lived in a state of disbelief until Jesus appeared to them. However, Thomas wasn’t in the room when Jesus first appeared. So, of course Thomas was incredulous, and unbelieving, who wouldn’t be?

But here’s the thing I keep thinking about. Despite what he’d heard, and regardless of how terrible he must have felt, Thomas showed up. He heard the others talking about Jesus reappearing, he knew their fear and concern, he too felt the guilt and the despair for all that had happened. He could have just gone on his way, avoided the whole thing, been angry and withdrawn, he could have left the group in self-righteousness. He could have left because that is one of our human response to feeling vulnerable and hurt, we check out, we leave, or at least we want too. But Thomas didn’t do any of that. He had to have had all these emotions but he showed up anyway. He came to the upper room and joined the rest of them. And Jesus shows up again, too. I mean if anyone was entitled to anger and self-righteous indignation, it was Jesus. But Jesus is not angry, he is gentle and patient, and speaks with compassion. Jesus understands because he is able to see a bigger picture than just what happened to him and how he is feeling. He is able to see and understand that this is what happens when people get afraid, feel vulnerable, and act defensively. In response Jesus models compassion and kindness. He’s not naive, he still has his wounds - he even shows them to the disciples. He’s clear about what happened to him, he’s just not acting out in anger.

What can be learned from this is that the only way to become whole again is to integrate the pain and suffering and vulnerability by staying with the feelings until a bigger, fuller picture can be imagined. This bigger picture isn’t about anger or judgement or projecting one’s own feelings onto others. Instead, one sees both one’s self and others from a place of inquiry, questioning, and ultimately compassion. Here, Jesus says, touch my hands and my side, touch my wounds, touch my pain and vulnerability, its mine, and its yours.

Like Jesus’ body in the resurrection, the wounds are never gone. But neither our wounds nor our scars need to define us by making us bitter and angry. Instead, they can be part of what shapes us into richer, fuller human beings who are capable of integrating hurt with love.

In that moment of integration a transformation occurs. Easter, the resurrection, is an embodied experience of love and grace that transforms life. God is here with us, breathing in and through us, our pain, our suffering, our sorrows, our brokenness, our heartache, our anger, our cruelty, and all the ways we hurt ourselves and one another, God is with us, breathing peace in and through us. Breathing so that we can catch our breath, gain perspective, forgive ourselves and forgive others. Breathing opens us up and enables us the space to find peace and thus the potential to love the broken pieces of our lives in such a way that we are made whole again. 

a reflection on John 20:19-31

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Love taking root...

On my sixteenth birthday I came home from high school to find a bouquet of long stemmed blue iris’s, a gift from parents. My birthday falls in February, one of the bleakest months of the year, when fresh flowers are an especially delightful reminder of the warmer weather to come.

During the long season of Lent the church was void of fresh flowers. Instead we had dried sunflowers in muted browns and tan colors, and bare branches, rocks and ashes, stark symbols of winter and the spiritual journey of a season intentionally focused on our broken human nature, of the need for forgiving others and being forgiven ourselves. 

Now the space is once again filled with flowers, in such an abundance that I have to use Flonase just to be in this room. Potted tulips, hydrangeas, hyacinths, daffodils, and lilies. They fill the altar space and the transept, overflowing from altar to step, down to the font. It is a heady sight. One church I served use to plant the bulbs left over from these flowers. We’d have a party at the end of the Easter season and as a community we’d plant them around the property. Then the following spring the flowers would bloom, usually right in time for Easter! After years of doing this we ended up with gorgeous spring flower beds around the church.

This practice of planting Easter flowers holds more than a practical side of building a spring garden. It is theologically symbolic of faith taking root deep inside of us, like the bulbs growing roots into the earth,  then, of shoots springing forth and flowers blooming into a resurrection garden – a metaphor for our faith.

This morning we find Mary in the garden. She has come looking for the tomb of Jesus, but finds it empty. She speaks to someone, an angel perhaps, and flees with a mission to accomplish. She is halted on her way by someone she mistakes for the gardener. He calls out for her, “Mary!” and, it takes her a moment to recognize that this is not a gardener but Jesus himself, in the flesh. 

What is important to gleam from this story is that God’s love is made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection reminds us of a couple of things: God is bigger than our small knowledge of God, God reveals Gods self in unexpected ways, and God is always about love and restoring new life to the broken places in the world. 

The gospel stories unpack for us the various responses one can have to the living presence of God in our lives. The women respond by running off and telling the disciples, the disciples run and see for themselves that the tomb is empty, and the guards have another response, they attempt to subvert the resurrection by saying someone has stolen the body. 

I have witnessed new life and life restored to wholeness and hope replace despair often enough that I believe in the resurrection, in God’s ability to bring forth new life when we least expect it and in ways we cannot anticipate. 

God’s love prevails, year after year, rising up in communities all around the world. God’s love prevails over the violence in this world. Terrorism will not win. Death will not win. Into each horrible act of violence, perpetrated by selfish and cruel humans, God acts through the kindness and compassion of other human beings, who pick up the pieces, help those who have been wounded, and work to restore hope. God acts through us, we are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus, the means through which God’s love is poured out into the world. We reveal God’s love every time we treat another person with kindness, respect the dignity of others, and respond to life’s circumstances with compassion.

Like tulips, daffodils or lily’s we bring our own special essence to this garden of life, or own special way of loving God, and loving others as God loves us. Like Mary we too are called and sent to bring the good news: “Its Easter and God’s love is alive!”

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A foot is a enough...

One sunny afternoon in 1987 I found myself having lunch with my boss, who was the owner of an interior design firm, and his clients, Maria Tall Chief Paschen and her husband Buddy. A dance major in college, I was thrilled, and a little intimidated to have lunch with this prima ballerina. I don’t remember much from that lunch, and I’m sure I said very little. However the topic of dance must have come up because I recall her comparing modern dance and ballet saying, in what I perceived as a condescending tone, that ballet was a much more sophisticated form of dance than those moderns “danced in their bare feet”. If Maria were still alive she’d probably be aghast that many modern ballerina’s now perform in the traditional ballet pointe shoes as well as in bare feet. 

I have always loved being barefoot. Maybe it’s the result of growing up in the west, where everything is more informal? I recall spending all day outside, usually barefoot, climbing trees and running through fields and grass until my feet were scrapped up and dirty. Evening foot baths were a requirement before getting into bed. 

So when I hear the story of Jesus washing the feet of his friends I understand the need for clean feet after a day of walking in dirt and dust, and the luxury of soothing hands pouring warm water and massaging feet with soap, rinsing, and then drying them with a towel. 

Reflexologists believe that every organ of the body has a corresponding pressure point in the feet. Applying pressure to the points relieves ailments in that region of the body. They might say that the whole body is in feet.

When Jesus responds to Peter’s exuberant cry, “not just my feet, but all of me!” I wonder if Jesus had the same idea about feet - that the whole body could be accessed through the feet. It wasn’t necessary to wash all of Peter, his feet would be enough.  

We might think of feet as dirty, or gross, or ugly. Having someone wash one’s feet may make one feel vulnerable and self-conscious. Feet can be ticklish. And some people never want to bare their feet in public, for what-ever reason. It’s just plain awkward to participate in the foot washing portion of Maundy Thursday. If I weren’t the priest and leading the service, I’m not sure I’d expose my feet and let someone else wash them. And yet, what we do here tonight, washing feet and sharing bread and wine seems to indicate that  for Jesus there is a connection, a mystical relationship between foot washing, baptism, Holy Communion and the body of Christ. This mystical relationship is lost on us if we over think it. It is a sensory relationship, felt, experienced inside, a spiritual connection between us here today and Jesus and his friends on that night long ago. 

Participating in the body of Christ is rarely clean, neat, or easy. It’s often messy, and risky, and requires some willingness to be vulnerable, to step out of our comfort zone in order to respect the dignity of others, and extend kindnesses that exceed our usual inclinations. Being the body of Christ means having the stamina to stay in relationship with those who challenge us. It means recognizing that the violence of the world, the bombings and the killing of innocent people, is not what God is asking of the faithful. Acts of violence are human actions built on fear and greed and selfishness. Being the body of Christ is about being connected, all of us, like feet to heart to hands, with friends and strangers alike. Peter’s late to the party but exuberant, “Take all of me!” reminds us that if we show up often enough and are willing, then participating in the body of Christ pries open our hearts to the reality of God’s grace.  All Jesus needs, to share this grace, is a foot, a little bit of us, and a willingness to be vulnerable.

a reflection for Maundy Thursday....

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Reckless Grace

In a small town where life has been the same for 100 years, a war is about to break out between the tranquility of tradition and the fear of change. A power struggle ensues between acts of compassion and hospitality and a fierce adherence to protocol.  The shock of something  new, the excitement of letting go of what have become meaningless “rules for life”, the dangers of denying people joy and the consequences of intolerance are aroused by a chocolatier’s delectable sweets in the movie CHOCOLAT. At the heart of the story in CHOCOLAT is a gypsy-like woman named Vianne born with special powers. Vianne arrives as a mysterious outsider to the French village of Lansquenet where she opens a chocolate shop offering candy and beverages that can cure lost hopes and awaken long deprived emotions.

Vianne's effect, and the impact of her chocolate, is immediate and extraordinary: the elderly find themselves recalling young love, troubled couples regain their spark, sniping neighbors become happy friends, and one woman, initially portrayed as a disheveled, incoherent thief who is ignored by the towns people leaves her abusive husband and finds her voice and a sense of purpose in life. But Vianne's chocolate arouses something else: an escalating battle between compassion and moral indignation. 

Some in the town began to let go of their limited view of themselves and other people. Others in the town become further entrenched in the tradition, led by the righteous Comte de Reynaud, who declares Vianne public enemy number one. Just as Vianne is about to give up and leave town an unexpected romance with a handsome stranger forces her to choose between leaving her hostile surroundings or making a true difference to the townsfolk of Lansquenet. Vianne’s chocolate is a metaphor for God’s extravagant, reckless grace. Indulging in pleasures like her chocolate becomes a metaphor for grace, compassion, and joy - the gifts of life. As the townspeople awaken to her chocolate they awaken to themselves and begin see one another with greater love, kindness, and acceptance - no one is perfect.

Our children in the Prayer Room are spending the season of Lent considering the environmental and economic impact of chocolate growth, production and consumption. In a curriculum called, No Chocolate Know Chocolate, the children are forming a parallel understanding between growing chocolate in the rainforest and growing as Christians in church. It’s a fun curriculum, challenging us to see chocolate in Lent in a new, expansive, insightful way.

Much like the townspeople in the movie Chocolat and their complaints against Vianne, our Gospel reading from Luke this morning begins with a complaint made by the Pharisees regarding Jesus’ behavior. Jesus responds with a parable about God’s extravagant, almost reckless love for God’s people. 

As the story unfolds, it is clear that the parable conveys the idea of a loving God, portrayed by the father’s abundant unconditional love for his children. Each character in the story reveals something about human nature and the God who created us and loves us. The father’s relief that the son is home despite his reckless behavior wasting away his inheritance. The father hope that the older brother will be part of the celebration, despite his jealousy and wounded pride. Both these sons, so very human, and yet deeply loved. And the people behind the scenes, the wives and mothers and daughters, and the servants who pull off a lavish, extravagant, feast on short notice. God’s grace is present in each of these, a sign for us of how and when God may manifest in our lives too, overturning expectations with surprise and hope.

Grace lies at the heart of this parable. Grace is the word that describes how God’s love is experienced in our lives. This parable asks us to consider the extravagant, reckless, even wasteful grace of God’s love in our lives.

We’ve done some “extravagant acts of love” in this parish. Take for example The Liberia School Project, the Pew project remodeling the space for handicap accessibility, the generous way we share the building, the new exterior plaza, community garden and in general the very public access of this property. How we share these is extravagant, risky, sometimes wasteful, and comes at a price - we need staff and resources to support them. 

These reveal much about who we are, a community-centered church, with lights on and doors open, about a presence and a grace, and a generosity that is, in many ways, unexpected in the world today. These reveal much about who we are and how we allowing the blessings of God’s grace in our lives, in this place, to pour out with abundance, into the world around us. Is there more we can do? No doubt? Will we do more, as we are able? Certainly. So long as we remain open to the spirit as she runs into our lives and so long as we are willing to be part of the God’s prodigal family.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Give a Fig....

Being There, a movie from 1979 starring Peter Sellers, tells the story of Chance, the gardener. Chance grew up secluded in a house in Washington DC the apparent offspring of a very wealthy eccentric named Jennings. Chance’s life is simple and routine. He’s allowed to garden in the small plot in the walled-in backyard, and dressed in expensive handmade suits. His only knowledge of the outside world comes from watching television. But when Jennings dies, and no provisions were made for Chance, the housekeeper is fired, Chance is evicted, and the house is sold. Chance walks out of the house for the first time in his life and encounters a street gang, which he tries to make go away with a remote control TV changer, and then, after a freak accident ends up in the home of a wealthy but dying industrialist and his wife, played by Shirley McLaine. 

McLaine’s character misunderstands him when he says his name is Chance, the Gardner, she thinks he says Chauncey Gardner. Over time the characters in the movie find great wisdom in Chauncey, his simple minded statements about gardening are applied to life as if they revealed great wisdom.

For example, responding to a question about the economy Chance says:
"In a garden, growth has its season...as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden."
The movie is a political satire commenting on the shallowness of American culture, of appearances over substance. Chauncey appears to be well-bred and so he is readily welcomed into the upper eschalons of society. And, yet things are not as they appear.
The people in the Gospel reading this morning are trying to make sense out of some events that have them all riled up. There’s been an injustice, they are full of righteous indignation and they want Jesus to get all worked up too, blaming Pilate and the Romans for harming Galileans. But Jesus doesn’t get angry, instead he points out the hypocrisy in their self-righteous anger, look at your self, work on your self, he says, instead of pointing fingers at others. Things may not be as they appear, Jesus says. 
Last week the clergy of this diocese had the privilege of spending an hour with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry who was in town for the weekend. Bishop Curry brings a strong unifying message to his term as our chief spiritual leader in the Episcopal Church. He says we are part of the “Jesus Movement.” By this he means that our response to the anxiety in the world is to follow Jesus. The parable of the fig tree in the Gospel of Luke helps us understand what Bishop Curry means. Essentially, to be a faithful person means we take our best step forward and leave the rest to God. We are charged to witness to the love of God in Jesus, a love that Jesus shared widely and with abandon for all of God’s creation, a love that left the end result up to God. In other words, things are more than they appear.
The fig tree cannot decide for its self that it will just suddenly produce fruit. It needs the gardener to tend to it and nurture it, and with any luck it will produce fruit. But not even the gardener can make it produce fruit, the end result is up to God.  Jesus, and Bishop Curry, remind us that we are the gardeners of our souls called to work on ourselves, to grow more aware of how we are living in the world, and to be good stewards of the world God has given us. As part of the Jesus Movement our task is to labor on, enter into the mystery of God’s work on earth, do our best to love God, love others as ourselves, and leave the rest to God. We can’t force good fruit to come forth, all we can do is be faithful. 
I don’t know about you, but this is not easy for me to do. I don’t like to step out in faith without having some sense of the end result. I don’t like to trust in an unknown, I want things to be crystal clear. And, its always easier if there is someone to blame when things don’t turn out as anticipated. But when it comes to faith we are called to be accountable to ourselves, to not point fingers at others, or as Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, take the log out of our own eye first. Most important this reading reminds us that the task we have from God is to being willing to do what it takes to grow in our relationship with God, self, and others, and leave the end result to God. 

Difficult as it may be, and perhaps more than any other time in recent history, this season of Lent invites us to be open to the possibility of a future we do not own, manage, or control. Yet, we are to trust that through our faithful labor to be kind, to love others, to show compassion and mercy, and grace, to bring forth equality and justice for all, to live as Jesus teaches us, through these efforts to be and become the most faithful we can be, somehow through us, through human kind, God will produce good fruit. Yes, we need to tend to our faith, nurture our spiritual lives, and allow for time to grow. But in the end the fruit that God produces doesn't come about by chance, and it isn’t superficial, but it bears the distinct possibility of being the best kind of fruit of all.

(a reflection on Luke 13:1-9 for Lent 3C)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Nourished Souls

Our young children in the Prayer Room are learning about chocolate for the season of Lent using a curriculum called “No Chocolate Know Chocolate”. They are learning about how chocolate is made, beginning with cacao pods through the harvesting and production of chocolate, as a metaphor for how people grow in their faith as Christians.

For example, did you know that cacao trees require very special growing conditions?  A cacao tree can only develop within twenty degrees of the equator in rainforests. It needs a place that is warm and moist, with a canopy of leaves to provide the tender plant some shade and protection.The cacao tree blossoms all year long, not just in certain seasons. And the blossoms can occur any place on the tree—usually the flowers are directly attached to the trunk - not the end of branches like other seeds. Flying all around the blooms are tiny midge flies that pollinate the blossoms so that they can grow into football-shaped pods the size of pineapples. Those pods are filled with seeds and they are what people harvest so that we can have chocolate!

Chocolate is nourishing the spiritual lives of our young kids and of course I have chocolate for us too. This week the chocolate is an Equal Exchange, organic chocolate from cacao pods that are grown, harvested, and produced in processes that enable the workers all along the way to earn a living wage.

But chocolate is just a metaphor for our spirituality, which is kind of perfect for the season of Lent when we are invited to look at how our faith shapes and informs our lives. The season of Lent invites us to consider questions like, “What am I doing to grow my relationship with God?” and, “What challenges am I facing that keep me from God?”

The psalm this morning considers similar questions

(and at 10am) 

as well as connecting our readings to our liturgy, the words in the Psalm are the words in several of our Taize prayers. 

(at 8am and 10am)

The person in the Psalm recognizes that the world is full of challenges and life is complicated. The Psalmist thinks, life can be really horrible, and one more day of this horribleness will be the end of me. Then, as often happens, life begins to turn around and get a little better and the Psalmist can see light at the end of the tunnel. There’s hope! But it’s the journey through that engages the Psalmist and is at the heart of the invitation to observe a holy Lent. It’s the journey through life’s difficulties that helps one grow in spiritual maturity, not the kind of challenges nor the outcome.

My youngest brother was born fifty years ago, yesterday. The day he was born I remember my dad calling home to tell us the baby was born, and it was a boy. I already had two younger brothers and I wanted a baby sister. Granted I was only nine years old, and so my first response to the news that I had another brother was to slip away into my room and hide my disappointment. Or course he’s proven to be a delightful brother, funny and smart, he cracks me up with his view on life. Given the difficulties of my family, my mother’s illnesses and my father’s alcoholism, being the only girl with three younger brothers definitely shaped me, not always for the better. For a long time I had no language or ritual or spiritual practice to help me make meaning out of my life experiences, my failed attempts at perfection and the regrettable effort at even trying to be perfect. I wonder if it might have helped if the church I attended as a child had observed Lent?

 In that church Christmas and Easter were days not seasons, and Ash Wednesday and Lent did’t exist. I wonder though, if I had had an intentional season to consider the broken places in my life, if I would have examined the challenges of my childhood and their impact on me? I wonder if it would have helped me to learn how to confess my failures and know that God loved me anyway? It’s true I had an active prayer life with God, but with the challenges of my childhood and my prayers and conversations with God, my faith remained shallow, unexamined, lacking context to help develop it deeper. 

In a sense I was starved for that kind of deep spiritual nourishment that fills one’s soul and sustains one with enough sustenance to survive when life is challenging. It’s only after I was an adult and an active member in the Episcopal Church that I began to really grow and develop an authentic solid sense of faith. Growing in faith through all the seasons, from Advent through Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and into ordinary time, is one of the spiritual opportunities that church has offered me. Being in community with other people of faith has encouraged me to look more deeply at my life. Through the church I have formed relationships that have supported me and given me the courage to examine the brokenness in my life, and friendships that have helped me grow in spiritual maturity.

Growing in spiritual maturity can be profound, even life changing. But, spiritual growth can also be subtle, just a simple choice one makes, like the difference between eating mass produced chocolate made by the slave labor of children versus eating fair trade chocolate where the producers, from farmers to manufacturers, all make a living wage under humane working conditions. Both are chocolate but when one eats one or the other one knows, at the core of one’s being, that the fair trade chocolate is the better spiritual, moral, and ethical choice. 

I guess we might say that chocolate is more than just delicious, it might be nourishment for our souls, too. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

What's It Gonna Be?

Do you recognize any of these wrappers?
[Hold up empty chocolate wrappers.]

Too bad these are empty! Is one of these a favorite of yours?
[Allow suggestions of favorites.]

Have you ever heard anyone say that he or she plans to give up something for Lent? Maybe something like chocolate?  Giving up something we find tempting—especially chocolate—serves as a tool to help focus our minds and hearts during the season of Lent. Every time we crave whatever we have given up we are reminded that its Lent. Whether we give in to the craving or not, the practice is intended to be a trigger to focus on the real point of Lent, growing our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others; growing deeper in our faith and growing as Christians.

During this Lenten season, I want to suggest a different way to prepare for Easter. Instead of NO – N-O—chocolate for Lent, how about KNOW – K–N–O–W—chocolate for Lent? This is the curriculum our youngest children in the Prayer Room are using for the season of Lent.

[Display both sides of the chart as the words NO Chocolate and KNOW Chocolate are spoken and spelled.]

No Chocolate - Know Chocolate for Lent uses the growing and manufacturing process of chocolate as a metaphor for Christian formation. Using these lessons the kids will form connections between the growing process of chocolate and the growing process of being a Christian. The kids have a rainforest mural in the Prayer Room and each week they will hear a portion of the story about chocolate and a brief message that aligns chocolate production with the faith journey. There is also a Fair Trade coloring book for families to take home with them. 

So, giving up something for Lent is a practice some of you may have taken on, with the intent of growing your faith through this discipline. Others of you may have decided to do something new, different, or extra for Lent. Taking on an activity, particularly a service project or a discipline of prayer, is also an effective tool for guiding one’s Lenten journey. It’s also helpful to think about our busy lives and consider if your Lenten practice might be reducing your busyness so you can slow down and be more mindful this season, less distracted and harried. The primary invitation is to observe a Holy Lent by being intentional about it. 

One this first Sunday of Lent you can tell, just by looking at our worship space, that the season of Lent has some distinctive features to it: the baptismal font in the entrance way is filled with rocks reminding us that a life of faith is often rocky. The water fountain in the midst of the rocks, symbolizes that God is with us on the journey – sustaining us, nurturing us, and nourishing us. The dried plants remind us that our spiritual lives can be dry, dusty, and barren, wintery. The glass chalices and other glassware symbolize ordinary glass, simplicity. The color purple is a color of royalty, of Jesus leading us into God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is here, now, reflected in how we live our lives, how closely we have aligned ourselves to Jesus. 

(at 10am) 
And our worship service itself is more solemn and prayerful. We will sing a number of Taize pieces through out the service. Taize is a simple chant, which when sung over and over, becomes a form of prayer. The announcements have been moved to the end of the service and the exchange of the peace is intended to be shorter and more solemn. The entire service is intended to be more prayerful. 

(8am and 10am)
Our reading from Deuteronomy opens this season with a clear call to remembrance – the Hebrew people have finally come to the end of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness of a dry and barren desert  – their promised land is in sight. They spend time remembering and celebrating who they are – God’s people. In the Gospel of Luke we hear of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, and think of our wilderness times, lost in temptation, and confused about the purpose of our lives. We are God’s people and in Lent we are called to think about what it means to be a people of God. Lent is a season of simplicity and a time to focus, with some intentionality, on who we are and whose we are. 

Traditionally Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare ourselves by looking at who we are and what we are doing. We prepare ourselves by reading scripture and following Jesus in the final days of his life and learning from him what it means to be a person of faith. It means to have trust in an ever present God, even when God seems absent. It means to have trust in a God who loves us just as we are. And it means to love others with that same kind of generous, accepting love.

One does not need to give up something for Lent nor take on something new. Eat chocolate or give up chocolate for Lent. The point of having a Lenten practice is to help one increase one’s awareness of one’s relationship with Jesus. Observing a Holy Lent is an invitation to relationship, to deepen one’s relationship with God, with Jesus, with other people and with one’s self. 

I invite you to observe a holy Lent.