Saturday, June 24, 2017

Learning, always learning

When I was five years old my mother decided to divorce my birth father, making her a single mom with three kids in 1962. A few years later my mom married again, and that man adopted my brothers and I, making us a legal family. After that my mom cut us off from my birth father and his family, and I did not see any of them for over 20 years. Even when we reconnected we were never able to rebuild a consistent stable relationship, perhaps that was part of the problem in the first case, and why my mom got divorced? 

Family relationships can be complicated. The stories in the Book of Genesis of Abraham, Sarah and their son Isaac along with the Hagar and her son Ishmael remind me that all human relationships are complicated. 

The reading this morning reveals just how complicated things were for Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham. First of all, who are these people? Sarah and Abraham were called by God, who led them into the wilderness with the promise that they would build a great nation. Along the way they ended up in Egypt where Abraham convinced the beautiful Sarah to lie to the Pharaoh and tell him she was Abraham’s sister, because that lie would make Abraham’s life easier. Pharoah, took Sarah as his wife, not realizing that she was already married to Abraham. When Pharaoh started having bad dreams and realized that they were telling him the truth about Sarah he sent her back to Abraham and told them to leave the country. Somehow in all of that Hagar ends up with them. Was Hagar a slave women given to Sarah by Pharaoh? Or, was Hagar an Egyptian princess who fell in love with Sarah's God and wanted to be with Sarah in order to worship THAT God? Was Hagar a victim? Was Sarah cruel? How complicated were things in the house when Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, had a child with Hagar, a child named Ishmael? Why was Abraham mostly silent and bizarrely complicit in all of this? Or, another interpretation of the story suggests that Hagar and Sarah are the "faithful" ones, each keenly aware of God's bidding and desire, collaborating with God in bringing forth two great nations, a world of diversity. How is that both Sarah and Hagar had to leave the security of home, and wander in the wilderness, in order to learn who she was and find her strength and purpose in life?

No doubt family relationships can be complicated. Cutting off relationships and families does not eliminate the complications, but only adds layers to the mess. What ever was actually going on between Sarah and Hagar, God remained in relationship with both of them, and at the end of Abraham's life the two sons, Ishmael and Isaac reunite to bury their father. Perhaps they have stayed in touch all along? Maybe the point is that as humans we cannot always manage to build the kind of beloved family and community that God hopes for us, but regardless of our relationship challenges, God stays faithful, continues to work for wholeness, and strives to build loving relationships between all people….

This idea of building beloved communities, of building relationships is at the heart of  Paul’s letter to the Romans. As I said last week, the Roman church community is fighting over who belongs, who are the true Christians - the circumcised Jewish Christians? Or the uncircumcised Gentile Christians? Paul says, they are both true Christians and they need to stop being distracted by something that is ultimately not important. They need to work on building relationships not creating divisions.

In the reading from Matthew it sounds as if Jesus is encouraging divisiveness. But what Jesus is really encouraging in discipleship. Discipleship means “learner” and being a disciple means that one is on a journey, a process of learning about God, Jesus, and one’s self in relationship to other people. As Christians in community, Paul and Matthew are writing to encourage people to build beloved communities of faith by being in relationship with one another, learning from one another, and sharing the love of God, made manifest in Jesus, with one another. This is an act of ongoing discernment, as each person, learning and growing in faith, strives to understand anew what God is calling forth in one’s self and in one’s community. This connects to the heart of the story in Genesis, where God acts in and through the relationships of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, and their children, to bring forth communities of faith. 

As disciples, we are still learning, always learning about who we are as a people of God. In particular, for us, the Renaissance Strategy Task Force is actively listening and learning and discerning where God is calling us today, who is our neighbor and how are we being called to leave the safety of these walls, like Hagar in the wilderness, where we will find our true strength and identity? 

a reflection on the readings for Proper 7A:
Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Playing for Hope

My family and I once lived in a community with a high percentage of immigrants from Serbia-Croatia, people who had fled the war in the early 1990’s. My son is still friends with some of the kids he met.

 It was on May 27, 1992, only two days after my son was born, when a line of people, waiting to get bread from the only shop in Sarajevo with flour, was attacked, leaving 21 people dead. Despite the violent attack, the next day people were back in line for bread. They could die from starvation or they could die trying to get food.

A Bosnian man named Vedran lived across the street from the bakery and witnessed the shooting. Vedran had been a cellist in the Opera Theater before the war closed it down. So the day after the shooting Vedran dressed in his concert black suit and tie, crossed the street, sat down in a chair, and began to play his cello for those waiting in line. Every day for twenty one days he came and played Albinoni’s Adagio. He played for all that was lost. He played for all that was to come. He played for hope.

Today there is a statue in that square where Vedran sat, of a man with a cello. The statue is not a commemoration of Vedran, rather it is monument to hope when all seems lost.

Each of our readings today speaks of human struggle, human perseverance, and the amazing grace of hope. First, in Genesis, we have Sarah and Abraham who follow God’s call into the wilderness and wait for decades for their hope, God’s promise of a child. Along the way they struggle, doubt, smirk at God, laugh at God, and create chaos in their lives. But in the end, God comes through, a child is born, hope lives. 

In Paul’s letter to the Roman’s he is helping them resolve a conflict over circumcision. The conflict occurred because there was an expulsion of Jewish Christians from Rome in 49CE by Emperor Claudius, which left the Gentile Christians in Rome to build the church. After Claudius’ death in 54 the Jewish Christians returned, and conflict between uncircumcised Gentiles and circumcised Jewish Christians ensued. Which group were the true Christians? 

Since the days of Abraham, circumcision was about marking bodies as a sign of the covenant between God and the men who follow God. (there’s no indication that women followers of God were marked physically). Paul’s argument is that the Jewish Christians in Rome were turning this marking, the circumcision, into a kind of idolatry, making it more important than one’s actual relationship with God. Paul is calling the people to remember that marked or not the important aspect of life is one’s relationship with God, with one’s self, and with other people. 

Paul recognizes that the conflict is intense and people are suffering. And so when Paul speaks about boasting in suffering he is not trying to encourage the conflict. Rather he’s acknowledging that everyone suffers. But suffering also provides human beings with the opportunity to grow and mature. When people work through their conflicts, when people struggle through problems, when people work to be in and stay in relationship with God, self, and others, then a person is on the path to growing in maturity and wisdom. For people of faith this is about hope.

Hope is not about things getting better on the outside of a person, hope is a process of transformation that takes place inside. One works on one’s self to grow in understanding of self and others, to not judge or blame or shame. Paul reminds them that in God’s eyes everyone is equal, male and female, Jew and Gentile. He urges them to work through their struggles grounded in faith which produces an inner sense of hope. Hope is finding a sense of calmness in the midst of struggle, and the ability to imagine a better day tomorrow. 

For me hope is about remembering that I have survived all of life’s challenges so far and I’ve always come out the better - healthier, wiser, more mature, with greater insight, and sometimes happier.

Whatever age one lives in, life will be filled with challenges and suffering, often from human beings hurting other human beings. Christians are called, like Abraham and Sarah, like the people Paul is writing to in Rome, like the disciples Jesus is sending out, to be people of hope. Called to reveal God’s hope not like a badge one wears on the outside, nor a monument of idealized sacrifice, but by cultivating an interior sense of peace and the capacity to love others without the need to shame or blame or judge. To love as God loves, as a sign of hope when all seems lost. 

a reflection on the readings for Proper 6: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Riddle me the Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday. It always follows the Sunday of Pentecost, and it launches the long Season after Pentecost, also known as “Ordinary Time” which continues through November, until Advent begins. To help us understand a bit about the complex nature of trying to explain the Trinity, one God in three persons, I’m starting with a few riddles

You will always find me in the past. I can be created in the present, but the future can never taint me. What am I? (History)

 You can see me in water, but I never get wet. What am I? (A reflection)

I am a ship that can be made to ride the greatest waves. I am not built by tool, but built by hearts and minds. What am I? (Friendship)

What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? (Human beings)

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Okay. The last one, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a spiritual question. Unlike a riddle, a spiritual question, known as  a “Koan,”in Buddhism, has no specific answer. The intent of giving a spiritual seeker a koan is to aide that person in deepening their spiritual awareness and insight. A koan is a question which has no absolute answer, although sometimes the meaning is very simple. The meaning of, “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” is silence. It’s a koan inviting the spiritual seeker into silence.

All religions have wisdom questions or phrases like koans. In the Hebrew tradition we find these in the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiasticus. In Christianity it may be the Trinity, that is the most perplexing concept of our faith, the notion of one God, three persons. 

The early church held council meetings over the course of about four hundred years debating the nature of God, the nature of Jesus, and the nature of the Holy Spirit and how these three natures were related and expressed in one being. The debates were often fierce and brutal. But in the end the debates left us with the Nicene Creed as the historical statement of faith that attempts to articulate what the church means by one God, three persons. 

The nature of the Trinity is like a koan – not something one can ever fully understand in concrete terms – but a concept that is intended stretch one’s imagination about God. The Trinity is like a Koan because we never have the complete picture of who God is. Christianity understands God as a Being who is both mysterious and present. In particular God is a Being in relationship with God’s self - God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; with each aspect having a specific kind of relationship with creation and all human beings. God the creator invites into creativity, God in Jesus invites us into relationships of love; and God the Holy Spirit actives that love within us and gives us our gifts and purpose in life. God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. 

God is a Divine Being who desires to be in relationship with us. We know God most fully in and through our relationships with others: family and friends, work relationships, neighbors and acquaintances. Jesus reminds us that we are to seek and serve others outside of our immediate context and strive to create a beloved community. The Holy Spirit is God’s energy, activating God’s love in us and in the world.

In caring for the hungers of this world, nourishing people in mind, body, and spirit, we at Christ Church are seeking to participate in God’s loving action in the world. God is a being of love.  We were made by God through love and we were made by God to love. Love is our purpose in life. Love is a verb, the active energy of being in relationship with God, self, and others.

Here at Christ Church God has revealed God’s self in and through us and in and through our many ministries. God is very present in this building, this property, the many ministries that take place here, from the food pantry to the quilting group, from martial arts and dance to the civic and international groups that offices and meetings here, from the labyrinth to the plaza, to our worship and our community, and in and through each one of us. Our reading from Genesis reminds us that God created all the world, all of life. God is the source of all creation, and in creating all the world, God also blesses the world and us.

Soon we will go outside and bless our beautiful community garden. Then we’ll conclude this morning on the plaza with a celebration of good food, music, dancing, fun and games. God calls us to delight in the life God has given us, and to celebrate all our blessings.

So, I’ll conclude with one more riddle. If you know what it means, tell me at the picnic. (or in the comment section below).

There are 5 people at a picnic, five apples in a basket, each person takes an apple, there's 1 apple left in the basket. How is that is possible?

Saturday, June 03, 2017

For the sport of it...

This past week was, for me, an incredible journey, driving with my son across the amazing country we live in. The goal of the trip was to get him and his car to Seattle, where has moved to start his first job and launch his career, post college. We also had to do an extensive apartment search to find him a place to live, which we did! Following I-90, the drive out west, through the fast paced highways of Chicago, the rolling green hills of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, the spectacular beauty of the Badlands and the unexpected grandeur of Custer State Park in South Dakota, the vast and unique glory of Yellowstone with its hot springs and geysers, from the stunning Rocky Mountains to the rich green Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound of Seattle, left my son and I in a constant state of awe. At one point I even said that my eyes were growing numb from the ceaseless beauty we beheld. We were also entertained by the wildlife, the prairie dogs sounding their alarm as we drove by, amusing us as they ran and played and tumbled. We were delighted with the herds of buffalo, including babies, meandering across roadways and fields, owning the road, forcing cars to stop and wait until the buffalo moved on. 

These majestic creatures, powerful and potentially dangerous, a species nearly as old as time itself, were stunning. The entire trip, while arduous and quick, only a week from start to finish, was a playful adventure through the beauty of God’s creation. 

Today’s Psalm and its mention of the Leviathan is reminiscent of this trip, where God’s wild creative energy is entertaining and dangerous. Clearly God must have a sense of humor to have created some of these creatures, just for the sport of it. The Psalm is a reminder that we are to have a sense of humor as we participate in the creativity of the world we live in. Being playful is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church, when the Holy Spirit inspired the followers of Jesus to form themselves into a cohesive community and spread the message of Jesus far and wide. The Holy Spirit is the glue that holds together all the wildly diverse aspects of creation. The Holy Spirit is the great equalizer, as we hear in the reading from Acts, where all people heard the voice of the Spirit, each in their native tongue. This wildly diverse crowd of people from across the region of the Roman Empire, slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, educated and peasant, soldier and tax collector, artisan and potter, baker and farmer, traveling merchant and who knows who else, all heard the Holy Spirit in a gust of fiery wind, breathing over them God’s words. From this the church was born and given its mission. The fruits of our good work, we hear, is love and wisdom. God revealed God’s self in human flesh that we might know God’s nature more fully, and love as God loves us, which is a process of maturity and growing in wisdom. 

We hold this understanding of God, the Holy Spirit, the church and its mission, in tension with a world of people around us who have not or do not go to church. If one reads the news or follows news-feeds on Facebook, there are plenty of reasons to doubt or struggle with the institutional church: scandals are pervasive, abuse of children and women is secreted away, arguing over who belongs and who doesn’t, over race or human sexuality, problems in the church seem to be at epidemic proportions. I get it. I know something about the desire to walk away, to disconnect, to leave the institutional church behind, to go it on my own, to be spiritual but not religious. I lived that way for a third of my life. No doubt in some ways it was easier. I didn’t have to wrestle with relationships, I didn’t have to work to figure out how to be a good Christian and how to be a person of faith, how to live as Jesus asks of me. I could live anyway I wanted too. Sure, I could still have good values and still treat people fairly and work for justice. 

However, learning to manage the tension of living in community, fostering a relationship with God, and navigating the complexity of diversity is what it means to be a faithful Christian, growing in compassion and maturity and wisdom and love. To be mature one needs to have resilience, the ability to move through and rebound from life’s challenges. Individually, and as a community, maturity reflects one’s ability to be clear about what one values and the principles upon which one makes decisions and guides one’s life. One of the key components of resilience and building healthy relationship is the ability to be playful and creative. 

How are we, the people of Christ Church, seeking to live as God calls us? How are we working to be in relationship with one another and the world around us? How are we working to be in relationship with our neighbor? WHO is our neighbor? How are we working to be and become a beloved community? How are we resilient in facing challenges? How are we playful, creative, and transformative? The newly formed Renaissance Strategy Task Force has been charged by the Vestry to reflect on and explore these questions, and then to help us develop a strategy for growing this Christian community, in more intentional ways. They are not starting from nothing, they have a vibrant list of ministries and a long history to work with. 

For example we host a very busy building filled with activities offered by civic, international, artistic, health focused, religious and sometimes political, meetings, classes, and events, offered by individuals and groups, revealing a creative ongoing source of energy as a community-centered church. More specifically, our church picnic, coming up next week, is an example of our playfulness as we dance, throw frisbees, toss baseballs, play soccer, blow bubbles, and share a meal. It’s a day of outdoor play that brings us together as a community having fun and celebrating life. Our exterior plaza, the community garden, memorial garden, labyrinth, and pet memorial garden, in fact our church grounds, are a sign of our creativity - beautiful and welcoming to everyone. Many people walk our grounds, sit in prayer at the labyrinth, and find refreshment in the shade of the plaza and its water fountain. This summer will be our third year hosting the outdoor summer concert series, held on four Friday nights, two in July and two in August. This concert series is one way we are reaching out to the wider community, building relationships in creative and fun ways. In these, and other ways, we are feeding people in mind, body, and spirit. 

As we celebrate Pentecost, our readings have one primary theme in common - the call to relationship. The call from scripture to be in relationship with one another, with our neighbor and with strangers, and with all creation, is serious. But, paradoxically, scripture also reveals that we do so playfully and creatively. Pentecost reminds us that church is a body of people working to be in relationship with one another, building a relationship with God, and manifesting God’s love in the world. Church is at its best when the people are diverse, creative, invigorated, prayerful, supportive of one another and a little wild and playful, just for the sport of it. 

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women ...