Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sermon for Year C Proper 14

Resting in the Peace of God

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be

So begins a poem by Wendell Berry.
A poem titled The Peace of Wild Things.

Funny thing is,
when I was trying to remember this poem,
I remembered the title as being
The FEAR of Wild Things—
which probably tells you a lot about how I feel
about wild things.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid, little flock.
It is a command
but a very, very tender command.

We hear it in our gospel reading today
but we have heard it before and we will hear it again and again and again in scripture.
Do not be afraid.
Fear not.

After the sermon and the Creed and the Prayers of the People
and the Confession and the Absolution,
we come to the time in our worship service
where I come to the center
in front of the altar,
and I say to you,
The peace of the Lord be with you.

And you say back to me,
And also with you.
And then I respond to you, saying,
Let us offer one another a sign of God’s peace.

This is not just a howdy-do and how’s the weather time and greeting.
It’s not a mini-coffee hour social time—
we greet one another in the name of God,
we reach out to one another with the heart of Jesus,
the mind of Christ.

When we greet each other,
with a handshake, with a hug,
with the words, “God’s peace”
or the “The peace of the Lord”
We are reminding one another,
Do not be afraid.

We do not keep God’s peace to ourselves.
We shake hands and hug and give God’s peace to others.
We give away
the peace of the Lord.
That is part of our work as the little flock, as Jesus calls us.

What more precious gift could we offer to one another
in a world that hangs thick
with despair and fear at times.
Do not be afraid.

There is a line from another poem,
one by Robert Frost,
that opens with its title line,
I have been acquainted with the night.

I have been acquainted with the night.
We have all known darkness in our life.
We have all shivered with fear at one time or another.
We have all felt overwhelmed by despair.
For some of us
it feels as if fear and despair and darkness own us.

What Jesus comes to tell us in the gospel reading today
is simply this:
Do not be afraid.
Fear is not God’s dream for us.

God’s dream
is to give us everything.
God’s dream is to give us the whole kit and kaboodle of the kingdom.
Imagine that!

Jesus wants us to be dressed for action,
to be ready to receive what is offered to us.
He tries to tell us
how to make space for the kingdom in our lives,
where to find the oil that will keep our lamps burning bright.

Some of his advice we do not particularly want to hear:
Sell your possessions.
Give alms.
Where your treasure it,
there your heart will be also.

All Jesus is trying to teach us
is how to live
without being overwhelmed by despair and fear.

All Jesus is trying to teach us
is that possessions—
those things, that stuff—
the big stuff
like money, cars, houses, pensions--
can crumble and disappear
before our very eyes.
And the little stuff-
our Smartphones, designer purses, cute shoes,
our grande no fat-no foam latte--
may delight momentarily
but sooner or later wear out and are empty.

God wants us to have the real thing.
(And I’m not talking Coca-Cola!)

Part of our foolishness and our self-deception
is believing that worldly stuff can conquer fear .

Sometimes we even invite and allow thieves
to come live in our house—
these thieves come in many shapes and sizes--
alcohol, food, drugs,
work, shopping, lying, hoarding,violence—
we believe these thieves will protect us, give us peace.
But at best, these thieves numb us to our real feelings.
At worst, they can kill us
And kill the relationships that matter most to us.
These thieves separate us from God and one another.

Jesus could have said,
Don’t be so stupid, little flock.
But instead—and it’s important to remember his gentleness here,
Instead, he said,
Do not be afraid, little flock.

Do not be afraid
to let go of things that do not bring you peace.
Do not be afraid
to travel lightly in this world.
Do not be afraid
to be part of a little flock
that will be there to bleat and baah and make a ruckus
when you wander away
and will leap with joy
when you find your way home again.
Do not be afraid to face your fears.
Do not be afraid
because God is with you.
God loves you.
God dreams for you the everything.

I do not think it is a coincidence
That so many people ask for Psalm 23
be read at their burial service.
I want to close with two versions of the 23rd Psalm.

The first is from the Bay Psalm Book.
This was the first book printed in North America,
printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Psalms in the Bay Psalm book
are metrical translations into English.

The second is a version written by Bobby McFerrin.
Remember Bobby Mc Ferrin—Don’t worry, be happy?

Listen to the two versions of this psalm as you hold in your hearts
the line from today’s gospel:
Do not be afraid little flock.

Psalm 23
(from The Bay Psalm Book)

The Lord to me a shepherd is
want therefore shall not I:
He in the folds of tender grass,
doth cause me down to lie:
To waters calm me gently leads
restore my soul doth he:
He doth in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake lead me.
Yea, though in valley of death’s shade
I walk, none ill I’ll fear:
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread,
in presence of my foes:
Thou dost anoint my head with oil,
my cup it overflows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
all my days follow me:
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
so long as days shall be. Amen.

This next version of Psalm 23 is from Bobby McFerrin.
He offers us a feminine image of God.
As you listen, remember Jesus’ words: Do not be afraid, little flock.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,

She makes me lie down in green meadows,

Beside the still waters, She will lead.

She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs, 

She leads me in a path of good things,

And fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,

There is nothing that can shake me,

She has said She won't forsake me,

I'm in her hand.

She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,

She anoints my head with oil, 

And my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me,

All the days of my life,

And I will live in her house,

Forever, forever and ever.

Glory be to our Mother, and Daughter,

And to the Holy of Holies,

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,

World, without end.

Sermon for Year C Proper 15

Settling up

Think back.
Think back to Christmas Eve.
We were here in this church,
and the lights were turned way down.
We held our little candles in the dark
and we sang:
Silent night, holy night…
Sleep in heavenly peace,

Today’s gospel is certainly not one of heavenly peace!
It’s as if Jesus has turned the spotlight on us,
and all we hear ringing in our ears is “You hypocrits!”
Jesus is shouting,
I came to bring fire to the earth
And how I wish
it was already kindled.

What happened to sweet baby Jesus?
What did we do?
In today’s gospel, it sounds like Jesus wants to torch us all!!

But wait!
Jesus is not talking about hellfire and damnation.
Jesus is referring to what his friend and cousin John the Baptizer said,
predicting that one would come
who would baptize not with just water,
but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Remember the day of Pentecost?
When the Holy Spirit arrives
and flames shoot out the top of the disciples’ heads?
Just take a look at the painting hanging over our retable!
Do you see the fire?

Jesus does not want to throw us in a burning fire pit.
He’s just wondering what happen to our flames?
Where’s the Spirit now?

Jesus came to kindle love, to set our hearts on fire
with the love of God and the love for one another.

This is the fire that Jesus sees lacking, missing, absent.
To be absolutely blunt
Jesus is disappointed in the disciples—and in us.

Because instead of love,
Jesus looks out over the world, over his disciples,
and what he sees is conflict.

Not love-- but hatred and division.
Even over issues of religion.
This was not God’s hope, not God’s dream.

We take the gift of unconditional love
and we feed it into the shredder
like it’s junk mail.

In today’s gospel Jesus is asking us,
What on earth do your think you are doing?
Conflict and division abound.

Listen to some of these headlines and stories
from The New York Times this week:

Hospitals are battlegrounds of discontent
…patients or their relatives attacked more than 5,500 medical workers [in one year]

…[NY Mets baseball player]Francisco Rodriguez was charged with third-degree assault early Thursday morning after assaulting his father-in-law at Citi Field..

…Her parents began having screaming arguments, complete with shattering glassware.

…Bloody protests in Kashmir have led India to one of its most serious internal crises and signal the failure of decades of Indian efforts to win peace in the region.

That’s just a taste of the conflict on the national and world scene.
Many of us also know too well
what conflict in a family looks like, sounds like, feels like.
Conflict at work, conflict at school.
Conflict with our neighbor.

Jesus knew that loving one another was not going to be easy.
Jesus knew that there would be divisions and there would be disagreements.

But Jesus also knows we received the power
to work these things out.
Remember Pentecost?
Remember the Holy Spirit?
It landed on us, too!

It is much more difficult to face and work through a conflict,
a disagreement,
than to just punch someone, or write a nasty letter,
or to just walk away and avoid someone.

We are often willing to talk ad infinitum with everyone around us--
EXCEPT the person that we are criticizing, judging, raging against.
We’re on fire alright—but not with love.

Jesus tells us in this gospel passage what to do:
what to do before things get so out of control:
Make an effort.

Make an effort—those are Jesus’ exact words—
Make an effort to settle the case.

We can’t settle things if we don’t talk to one another.
We can’t settle things if we don’t listen to one another.

I have recently discovered
that you can turn on the television
almost any time of day or night
and find a courtroom reality show on some channel—
Judge Judy or Joe Brown or People’s Court.

These shows are everywhere.
And if you watch them
you quickly see how ridiculous most conflicts are.

People don’t talk to one another.
People don’t listen to one another.
People certainly haven’t even crossed the threshold of loving one another.
People certainly made no effort to take Jesus’ advice and try
to settle things before they arrive in the courtroom.

They take someone’s clothes and throw them into the yard or out a window.
They key someone’s car or slash their tires.
They take someone to court over a frivolous incident.

It never seems to cross their minds that they could be wrong,
and the other person could be right.
It never seems to cross their minds
that there are ways to settle disagreements
without someone having to be the loser.

I think Jesus is trying to teach his disciples something
that we still need to learn.
It is absolutely impossible to be on fire with the love of God
if our daily practice is to throw a bucket of cold water—
or worse—
on our neighbor.

in the world.
in the community.
in the church.
In the family
In our soul.

Conflict only breeds more conflict.

Not a pretty picture.
No wonder Jesus is so fed up at the moment.
I think Jesus also knew that real love is a difficult journey.

The letter to the Hebrews says,
Let us run with perseverance
the race that is set before us.
It doesn’t take perseverance to run an easy race, a short race.

We have to want to love God so much
that we don’t give up on trying to love other people.

What does it mean to really love?

There is a children’s book called The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams.
Some of you may know it.
It is the story of a cloth—a velveteen—rabbit.
The rabbit asks another stuffed animal, “What is real?”

The other stuffed animal, the Skin Horse, replies,
“When you are loved,
really loved, for a long time,
then you are real..
it’s not how you are made…
it’s a thing that happens to you…
it takes a long time…”

God really loves us
and God will keep loving us for a long time.
We are called to that same long term love.
God deeply desires for us to grow in love with one another.

This type of “real love” requires us, as the psalmist wrote,
“to behold and tend this vine.”

Tom and I tried a new form of gardening this year.
We have not weeded our garden at all.
That’s right.
We have not pulled one single weed.

We decided to that if we don’t care how the garden looks,
then weeding doesn’t matter.
The vegetables will grow
just as the weeds grow.
And there will be plenty of produce,
Plenty of “good fruit.”

What we have learned this summer is this:
We were wrong!!
Very, very wrong!!

If we don’t care enough to tend our gardens,
the weeds will choke out the good plants.

Weeds will suck up all the energy
that could be producing all that is good to eat.

This is what Jesus was trying to warn his disciples about.
Don’t let the weeds choke out what really matters.
Don’t let your harsh words and conflicts and divisions
choke out the love and grace that has been given to you--
and is so eager to grow---
but only if you tend it.

Love takes much more perseverance,
much more creativity,
much more patient-kindling of the fire
than abandoning ourselves
to the fast-growing weeds
of conflict and division.

Dorothy Day said,
“I really only love God
as much as I love the person
I love the least."

We can walk away and slam the door
or we can offer our neighbor a key.
We can build walls
or we can build bridges.
We can join the criticizers and complainers
or we can join the joyful cloud of witnesses.
Conflict or communion?

You may have read the book
Or seen the movie that is recently out in theatres—
Eat. Pray. Love.

This is what Jesus is asking us to do.
Not to re-enact the story in that book or movie
but the title is a fine guide to how we can make the effort
to settle our divisions and our disagreements.
Eat. Pray. Love.

Come to this table and share the feast.
At God’s table
we receive food for the journey,
sustenance for running the race with perseverance.

Prayer opens us in ways that are hard to believe
and impossible to understand.
Prayer is not a means of controlling the world,
prayer changes and transforms us.

Love God. Love one another.
Be prepared for the long haul.
Leave this place and go out into the world and love.
Give love away abundantly.

We have been given the power, given the fire.
We can choose to torch the world and one another—
or we can choose to use that fire to spread the good news
and to share the light of Christ.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sermon for Year C Proper 13

No Bigger Barns Needed

The first summer Tom and I ever planted a garden
we planted about three long—I mean really long---rows
of zucchini.
We thought you only got one zucchini from each plant.

Needless to say by the end of the summer
we had A LOT of zucchini—
some about the size of small submarines!
If you want to understand abundance,
plant zucchini!

Now even novice gardeners don’t think of building newer, bigger barns
to house all their zucchini--
but we also don’t live in a country
that knows famine—
at least not in our lifetime.

I think this is important to understand
lest we be too judgmental
of the man who thinks he needs to build bigger barns
to house his abundance of crops.

This man has no doubt seen crops fail and people starve.
He doesn’t want that to happen to him.

Yes, we know this story as the parable of the rich fool.
And indeed, he is rich
and Jesus is quick to point out his foolishness.
But he is not a bad man.
He no doubt worked hard to produce these crops.

What Jesus wants us to understand from this parable
is that what we really need,
what we really long for,
what will make us truly happy has nothing to do with bigger barns.
Jesus is reminding us that life is short and unpredictable.
Keeping the abundance all to ourselves
will not lengthen our lives or make us happy.

It is easy to hear the parable and think “Oh, that man is so greedy!
I can’t believe he isn’t going to share.
How foolish to even think about tearing down his barns
just to build bigger ones!”

It is much more difficult to see our own greed and foolishness.
Our own “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

But parables are never about other people—
parables are always about us.
When Jesus starts in on a parable,
the hair on our arms should stand up and prickle,
because the truth is,
Jesus is saying,
Let me hold up this mirror right in front of your face.
Oh, Look! It’s you in this story!

Most of us have at least flirted with
the enticing prospect of winning the lottery
or being named the new American Idol--
suddenly having more money
than we know what to do with!

Our 21st century barns are not the type to hold extra grain—
our barn expansions are bigger houses, newer cars,
the latest toys and technology,
a rock-solid pension plan--
everything that money can buy!

It makes us extremely nervous and fearful
when we think we might not have enough—
for now or for the future.

That same anxiety and fear about the future
is probably what prompted the man to approach Jesus
and ask him to settle a dispute over an inheritance.
He wanted more. He wanted to feel secure.

Jesus doesn’t step into that triangle of family dispute
but instead tells a story—a parable—to try to help the man
(and us)
see the danger of caring so much about material possessions.

I don’t think Jesus is saying that material things are all bad.
We do live in a material world
and in a sense we are all, as Madonna pointed out,
material girls—and boys!

Some of the best work we do,
as individuals and as the church,
is outreach done to improve the material lives
of people in need—
to build and repair houses,
to provide food and clothing.
to purchase medical supplies
for those hit by disaster.
There are very real material needs in our community and in the world.
Material needs that are not one bit frivolous.

But the way we worry and fret over material things—
especially our own material things--
often distracts us from what really matters.

Sit across from a doctor who tells you or someone you love
that you have stage IV cancer,
and I imagine the last thing on your mind
will be what kind of car you drive,
or whether you should upgrade your mobile smartphone
or even your 401(k).

I think as Christians this is a very familiar message:
we are called to live believing in God’s abundance
not scarcity.
And we are called to give and to share accordingly.

Yet it is a struggle.
A daily struggle.

We tend to think of people like Bill Gates and Donald Trump
and Lady Gaga as the “rich” ones.
I’m not rich.
And then Jesus holds up that mirror.

The mirror asks hard questions.

Was having breakfast this morning a choice for you?
Were you able to get the needed loan to buy a car?
Do you have cable tv? Internet? TIVO?
Do you have clean and safe water to drink?
Do we have so much food that we let mold grow on the leftovers—
you know that bowl that got pushed to the back of the refrigerator—
and then hold our nose as we dump it out?

I remember my first week at seminary.
There was a garbage can just outside the door
where we put our lunch trays and dishes to be washed.
There was a student from Tanzania
who stood at that garbage can weeping that first week.
When asked what was wrong,
he replied,
“There is enough food being thrown away
to feed my entire village.”

Indeed we are rich.

Tom and I recently saw the movie “Winter’s Bone.”
If you are a lover of movies,
I highly recommend it though I will warn you that it is hard to watch.
It was a powerful reminder to me
that there are families right now, in our own communities,
who are hungry,
who live daily with the reality of violence,
who do not have enough
and no one seems to really notice.

In one scene the little boy asks his older sister—
knowing that their neighbors have just killed a deer and have meat—
“Couldn’t we just ask them to give us some?”

The sister replies, “No. You don’t ask for what should be offered.”

I have thought a lot about that line.
When I first heard it I thought it was just the older sister’s pride speaking.
And probably that is part of it.

But I think there is a powerful spiritual truth to that statement.
Why should she have to ask?
When there is plenty—why are we—the neighbors—not offering?
Are we so completely blinded by our overflowing barns?

The Greek word is pleonexia—it translates literally as
“the yearning to have more.”

The yearning to have more.
Pleonexia sounds nicer than greed, doesn’t it?
But it is really the same beast.
It is a beast we know too well.
We are too often dissatisfied with the manna of enough;
we yearn for the more and the more and the more.

This may be the way of the world,
but it is clearly not the way of God.

Why must we be asked to be generous?
Why must we be prodded to share?
Shouldn’t we just do that automatically as people of God?

We fool ourselves in believing
that if we can just get enough money in the bank
and food on our shelves
and possessions in our houses
then we will be safe.
THEN we can be generous.
THEN we can give.

Jesus tells this parable to remind us that it is always later than we think.

The way to real life is to give our lives away,
to offer before we are asked,
to share all we have, all we are.
to put aside our rich and foolish ways.

Bigger barns are not needed..
Only bigger hearts.