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 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.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Ontologically More Than We Could Ever Imagine...

When I was in seminary and the members of my class were preparing for ordination there was a Greek term, Ontological, that we talked about a lot. Ontology means the study of “being,” the study of who one is, at one’s most fundamental core self. The conversations we had involved what was going to happen to us, ontologically, when we were ordained? If ordination is a particular calling forth of the Holy Spirit making one a priest, and that once ordained one could never be unordained, did that not mean that one was changed, fundamentally, at one’s core self? Many wondered if they would actually feel changed. Most were sad to report that following ordination they felt no different from the day before. I have to say that the dominant feeling that I have had since being ordained a priest is an acute awareness that I am always a priest. It’s not the collar that makes me a priest nor the vestments. Regardless of where I am, what I am wearing, or what I am doing, I am a priest. It calls me up short sometimes and makes me mind my manners.

Back in the first century, when Christianity was illegal, priests were being forced to deny their faith or die.  People began to wonder if Holy Communion still sacred if it had been consecrated by a priest who had denied his faith, was allowed to live, and then some time later returned to being a priest? This was a question about what made the sacraments sacred, the person of the priest or the Holy Spirit? Thank goodness they decided then that the sacraments are made sacred by Holy Spirit and not the person who is the priest. I will always be a priest but I’m a human being too. This doesn’t really let me off the hook but it helps me breath a little easier when my humanity comes out.

It is true, however, that I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit every Sunday when I am at the altar, my hands raised as we pray the Eucharistic prayer, calling forth the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Some days it’s almost electric, there is a felt sensation which takes me out of my body even as it places me squarely in it. The words I pray and the motions I make with my hands are just the medium for God to shine forth. You all are part of this too, in your presence and the words you say, the Holy Spirit pours forth. This is the beauty of our liturgy, inviting and engaging the congregation in the words and action of the calling forth of the Holy Spirit to transform ordinary bread and wine into grace, into love, into spirit food. 

Likewise, our coming together, week after week, to pray, sing, and hold each other in community, is a calling forth of the Holy Spirit, transforming each of us into the body of Christ, that God’s light may shine through on the faces of each one of us. 

Not only does God’s love shine on our faces, but God’s love shines forth in the way we share this building. The other day I drove past a church, it was about 3 in the afternoon. The lights were off, the building was dark, and all of the parking lot entrances had chains across them and signs saying, “Keep out! Private property!” It made me think of us, this building - no chains, doors unlocked, lights on, and most of the time, people every where in the building. But not only people in the building, but in three out of four seasons, people all over the property - sitting on the wall of the exterior plaza to read, bringing dogs to the fountain for a drink of water while on a long walk, cruising around the community garden looking at the vegetation growing inside, running their dogs in the back part of the lot, walking the labyrinth, or sitting for a while and just being present to the beauty of this place. This entire space is like a mountain top offering, where people can find respite, and perhaps even transformation. 

In the reading from Exodus we hear that Moses’ encounter with God changed him. And Paul, in this second letter to the Corinthians writes that God’s presence releases people from spiritual bondage and intellectual blindness and boldly transforms people through the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul knew this first hand from a walk he took one day in which he encountered God, was struck blind and then regained his sight, new sight, spiritual insight, for which he was changed forever. And Jesus has this amazing mountain top experience that confuses three disciples while the other nine, down below, are stymied in their effort to heal a boy because they cannot access that part of themselves that brings forth the Holy Spirit. 

Whether one is having a Moses-like experience, or a Paul-like experience, or Peter, James, and John experience or even if one is having an experience of being stuck like the disciples who couldn’t cure the boy, regardless of the state of one’s awareness, one’s core sense of self holds within it the potential for transformation, from which the love of God will shine forth. Call it grace, call it hope, call it ontological transformation, whatever one calls it, the end result is the same, love is the natural, authentic state of our being. Love is our core because we are made in love by God who loves us just as we are. And yet, as soon as we become aware of the love of God in us, something happens. 

Then, God loves us into becoming more than we could ever imagine

(a reflection on the readings for Last Epiphany year C: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Cor 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43)

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