Monday, November 24, 2014

Jumping Up and Down

Sermon for Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 23, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, VT
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Jumping up and down

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren’t
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing “Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.

Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.

On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out
like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah
and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.

I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what’s comic, what’s serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing
exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

That is Stephen Dunn’s poem “At the Smithfield Methodist Church.”
One of my very favorite poems.

It so lovingly lays out our struggle with belief.
Our wrestling match with this man named Jesus
and the Church.

Today is the “Last Sunday after Pentecost.”
That sounds rather final, doesn’t it?

Here’s the good news--
it is not our last Sunday ever--just the Last Sunday of this liturgical season.

Many, many weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost,
the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples and onto all of us.
Some refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church.
If we think back we can remember the red vestments,
the kite flying over our heads inside the Cathedral,
the party that followed.

But time passes.
Weeks go by and here we are in a time of shorter days,
greyer skies, and time to ponder.
We began to wonder.

Am I a sheep or a goat?
Do I want to follow or do I want to butt heads with the Church?
Do I want to stand up for Jesus
or do I want to run and hide,
be silent, be sullen.

What is true?
What is real?
How can we know?

We spend so much effort trying to “fix” the church--
and each other, I might add--
that sometimes we miss the point.

The Church is not a fixer upper.
The Church is a community of God’s people.
Yes, there are flaws, definite whiffs of goat-dom at times.

But God does not call us--as individuals or as communities--
to be perfect.
God calls us to be faithful.
God calls us to be kind to one another, to be compassionate, to respect each other.

The Church does not belong to us--
the Church belongs to God AND us--together.

We also need to remember that we don’t have to find God.
God will find us.
If we open our hearts--and sometimes, even when we don’t.

It helps to show up.
Of course, as your priest,
I think it helps-- a lot-- to show up in church.

To pray and to worship, to give thanks.
And even for the most skeptical of us,
there is always that off chance
that we might be transformed
in ways we did not ask or imagine.

Yes, show up at church to pray and worship and give thanks,
but show up other places too.
I think it helps to show up in a lot of places
just as Jesus showed up in a lot of places.

Show up to offer hospitality to the stranger.
We do that by hanging out in the South Porch and welcoming
those coming through our doors.
Do you realize how much courage it takes to walk in the doors of a church
when you have been away for a long time?
Imagine the amount of courage it takes to walk through the doors
if you have NEVER been to church. Ever.
This is the world we live in today.

We greet one another at the time of passing God’s peace.
We host a coffee hour.
We fix a pot of stew or bring a gallon of milk
or help serve dinner at the Salvation Army.
We wash the pots and pans.
We invite someone to come to church.

We volunteer at JUMP and provide clothing and food
and diapers and a bus pass
and other basic needs for these strangers
that God has brought to our door.

We get involved with Vermont Interfaith Action
and write position papers
to try to change a system that sometimes feels unchangeable.
We jump up and down for justice
and believe that the impossible is possible.

We make a donation to the UTO fund
simply because we are thankful.
We care about what is happening in Zimbabwe and Haiti and Kenya
and Costa Rica.
We teach Church School to the littlest ones among us
and with the bigger ones,
we talk about the psalms or healing oils
or a walk through spiritual darkness.

We visit those in prison
always remembering that there are many types of prisons.

We begin to stop believing that we are the ones in control,
that we are the rulers of the universe.

On rare occasions we get it.
We understand how little control we have.

The doctor enters the examining room and says,
“We got your tests back and the news is not good...”

The phone rings in the middle of the night
and it is the call we hoped we would never get.

We stand helpless as we watch our teenager
or our husband or our wife--or ourselves--
spiral down into the deep, dark hole of depression or addiction.
Or both.

The rains come and the waters rise
and everything we worked so hard for and thought was ours forever
is washed away.

Suddenly we are the ones who need feeding and clothing
and tender visits.

Control is such a convincing illusion.

But Jesus keeps telling us that control is not what matters.
Love matters. Compassion matters.
God’s unquenchable thirst for restoration, for resurrection
begins to get our attention.

We sometimes think it is all up to us.
That we are the ones wearing the crown.
That we are the kings and the queens of the universe.
Not true.

The little girl in Stephen Dunn’s poem
has is right.

We are not called to have all the answers.
We are called to be joyful.

We are not called to be powerful.
We are called to be thankful.

We are called to see the face of Christ
in everyone we meet.
To see the face of Christ
in every single person.

To pay attention to the God-moments,
those lightning flashes of grace
that remind us of the kingdom that is coming,
but to also remind us,
that the kingdom
is already here.


+   +   +

Stephen Dunn is one of my favorite poets. I encourage you to buy one of his books of poetry.These are just a few.

Jesus Gives a Surprise Party

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints
November 2, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Jesus gives a surprise party

There is a brief article 
in the most recent edition of our local newspaper SEVEN DAYS.
It’s an article about surprise parties. 

Some of you may have had a surprise party given for you.
Maybe you really were surprised
Some of you may have experienced a planned-to-be-surprise party
but something or someone tipped you off
and you had to just pretend to be surprised.

Today in the gospel of Matthew 
we all get to go to a surprise party.
That’s right.
Jesus is giving a party.

Jesus has been traveling all over Galilee
and there have been crowds and crowds of people following him
and now he is going to try to shake the crowds
and head up a mountain
with just a few of his closest friends--
we know them as the apostles--
but its the other eight guests whom Jesus invites that are the surprise.
Some might even say shocking guests.

These surprise guests are the Beatitudes.
This list of blessed are the...
this list is known as the Beatitudes.

Beatitudes is not a word we toss around very much these days.

We can think of the word “beatitude” as meaning a “blessing”.
It’s also helpful to know that our English word “beatitude” 
comes from a Latin word
which means “happiness.”

So Jesus is essentially saying
those who mourn are blessed...
those who are poor in spirit are blessed..
those who are persecuted are blessed...

The apostles are listening and thinking, “what?!!”

Each time one of these beatitudes pops out of the cake,
it’s as if they literally shout SURPRISE!!
because what they have to say,
what Jesus has to teach,
is not the usual, not the expected, not the everyday.

So Jesus is trying to teach his disciples 
about the unexpected paths that will lead to happiness, 
the ways and behaviors that lead us to feeling blessed 
and to blessing others.

What will lead us to making life on earth as it is in heaven?
What will make us more whole as human beings?
What will bring us ultimate happiness.

The beatitudes are not a judgmental moral code.
Jesus is not saying try to be mournful,
try to get yourself persecuted...
Jesus is saying that blessing and happiness
can come from situations we could never plan or imagine.

Jesus throws this surprise party
to show his friends and followers a very different face of God.
What we hear and learn in the Beatitudes reveals 
a God who cares about the people who have the least,
the people who ARE the least in the eyes of the most.

The poor in spirit...
Those who mourn..
Those who are meek...
Those who are hungry for justice..
Those who are merciful...
Those who are pure in heart...
Those who are peacemakers...
Those who are persecuted when they try to do what is right...

The shock, the surprise, is that Jesus does not say what is expected.
He does not say
blessed are the powerful
blessed are the ones who have the answer to everything
blessed are the ones who triumph over others..

If you want help identifying the saints of God,
read the beatitudes. 
They are the description of those we know as saints.
Saints are the ones whose lives surprise.
Saints are the ones who look to God not to the world 
to receive their blessing.

Francis does not join his wealthy father in the family business.
He loves his father
but Francis finds his happiness, his blessing
in living in poverty, with the poor, as one of the poor,

Hildegard of Bingen defies the label of a “poor,weak woman”
in her 11th century world.
She goes on to become a writer, an artist, a composer, 
the founder of multiple Benedictine monasteries
and even an advisor to the Pope.

Frances Perkins ,an Episcopalian, could have just enjoyed her status
as being the first woman appointed to a cabinet position,
Secretary of Labor.
But she defied bureaucratic boundaries
and fought tirelessly for American workers.
She did not care if people liked or admired her 
but she cared about reforming labor laws so that children could go to school instead of work long hours as cheap labor,
so that the elderly would have a secure if modest income when they retired,
and more.

Blessed are the saints of God--
only they have not idea they will become a saint
when they start on their journey.

This kingdom of heaven is a different kind of party.
Jesus invites the lowly and the downtrodden,
those who don’t strive to make others lose
so that they can be lauded as the winner.
This party is about those who are kind, 
those who are merciful to others.

Jesus invites people who are at the end of their rope,
people who are broken-hearted,
people who feel they have lost everything.

Those who receive true blessing
are those who care about others and not just themselves,
those who work to resolve conflict,
to help people learn to work together instead of fight.
Those who do the right thing
even when there is so much encouragement to turn their backs
and go along with the crowds.

Okay. We get it. 
We were a bit surprised at first,
when those beatitudes were jumping out of the cake,
but it’s starting to make sense now.

Now of course we all want a blessing.
We all would like to go home with the beatitude party favor.
But we will have missed the real point of the party.
The real surprise is that 
the blessing has already been given.
To all of us.
God created each one of us to be a saint.

Indeed some read the beatitudes as warnings
on how we should behave.
And some read the beatitudes what’s going to happen at the end of time.

But I think they forgot to put on their party hats.
It’s not about deserving the blessing,
or earning the blessing.

It’s about living into the blessing.
Living in to the blessing we have already received.
It is about the grace that is already given..

The Rev. Dr. David Lose is a Lutheran pastor, a very gifted man.
He now serves as the head of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.
He tells a wonderful story about when he was in graduate school.

One of his professors consistently addressed him as “Dr. Lose.”
Eventually he felt like he had to say something and correct the professor.
He said, 
“Dr. LuRue, I haven’t earned my doctorate yet. 
I don’t think you should call me that.”

“Dr. Lose,” his professor responded, 
“ in my church tradition we are not content
to call you what your are, 
but instead 
we call you what we believe
you will be!
Our names are being called.
Right along with the other saints.

There’s a party on the mountain
and we are invited. 
We are invited to come and celebrate all that God believes we will be,
all that God believes we already are at the deepest part of our being.

Blessed are those who accept God’s invitation.


Who Brought You Out of the Land of Egypt?

Sermon for Year A, Proper 23
October 12, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Who brought you out of the land of Egypt?

Some of you know
that I was at the National Storytelling Festival
in Jonesboro, Tennessee last week.

Over 12,000 people from all over the world
gathered under enormous tents to listen to stories
from early morning into the night.

One of the storytellers I heard is a man named Tom Lee.
He is from Connecticut
and has told stories in many places
including recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
when they opened a new Egyptian exhibit.

He shared a piece of information
that relates to our Old Testament reading this morning.
In the reading from Exodus
Moses has gone up on the mountain to talk to God.
And the story goes that he will soon return bringing the stone tablets
upon which the ten commandments are inscribed.
At the end of chapter 31 in Exodus,
it says,
When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai,
he gave him two tablets of the covenant,
tablets of stone,
written with the finger of God.

Now if you are like me,
and have seen the old movie with Charlton Heston playing Moses,
you have a very vivid memory
of Moses coming down off that mountain with these two huge,
no doubt heavy, stone tablets.
The weighty word of God.

But what storyteller Tom Lee shared is that those tablets
were probably only about the size of the human hand.
That was the pretty standard size for stone tablets in that era.

Tom Lee also noted that the modern day iPhone
is just about that same size.
The size of the human hand.
(Tom Lee also predicted that iPhone 6 Plus will be a bust---
because it’s too large!
It doesn’t fit neatly into your hand!)

Regardless of the size of the tablets that Moses carries off the mountain,
there is trouble by Chapter 32.

Big trouble down at the base camp.
Golden trouble.
The people  got tired of waiting for Moses to get back.
They probably were scared too.
What happened to Moses up on that mountain?
Who’s going to protect us, lead us, help us now?

Sometimes we do really silly and stupid things
when we get scared.

The people went to Moses’ older brother, Aaron,
and they said,
it is time to go to Plan B.
Moses is not coming back.
We are tired of waiting.

So Aaron gave them what they wanted.
He created a golden image,
a calf.
Here you go.
Here is the one who led you out of Egypt.
The golden calf.
Here is the one who will lead you out of the wilderness.
The golden calf.

Really, Aaron?
Was Aaron just trying to calm the people down
or had he too lost faith?

I don’t think the Hebrew people really thought the golden calf
was equal to God,
to Yahweh,
but they needed something tangible.
They needed something they could see and touch
to give them hope.

Moses had been that tangible something.
Moses had negotiated with Pharaoh.
Moses had led the Hebrew people out of Egypt,
through the Red Sea.
Moses had freed the Hebrew people from slavery.

But you see Moses had not done any of those things.
That’s the point of the story.
God had done those things.
God had worked through Moses to save the people.

But God was not visible.
Moses was visible.

And now Moses is not visible.
And the people want something they can see.
Seeing is believing.
So a calf, forged out of gold, is made visible.

God is not a happy camper.

God tells Moses you better get back down there.
Because your people seem to have a very short memory.

God is angry.

Now I don’t know about you,
but I don’t really like an angry God.
I’ll be honest.
It makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe because I know that on occasion I am not all that different
from the Hebrew people.
I too can have a very short memory
of all that God has done for me.

This story in Exodus tells us that God is about to unleash disaster,
hot wrath against those stiff-necked people,
those ungrateful people.
Now stiff-necked means stubborn, obstinate, disagreeable,
I might have been stiff-necked--a few times.
Many times.

And what God is about to do is not going to be pretty.

And what does Moses do?
Moses knows his people have acted ridiculously
but he still asks God,
“Change your mind.
Don’t do what you are angry enough to do.
Change your mind.
Do not bring disaster on my people.
Because my people are YOUR people.”

And as incompetent or ungrateful and stiff-necked
as we can be,
give us another chance.

Our memories are short, aren’t they?
How quickly we can forget all that God does for us.
How quickly we can get lost in a log-jam of complaints
and forget to count our many blessings.

God says wait.
And we say no, now.

God says trust in me
and we say I tried that once but it wasn’t for me

God says you’ve made a mess
and we say it wasn’t my fault.

When my nephew Patrick was a little boy
he loved matchbox cars.
he would run them on the floor, up the wall, across your leg.
And one weekend he and his brother were staying with my parents,
their grandparents
and they sat down for dinner
and Patrick was running his car all over the dining room table.
My mother had reached her tipping point.
Let’s just say her “hot wrath” was being aroused!

“Patrick, you need to put away your car until after dinner.”
Patrick looked at his grandmother and said,
“You’re not my boss.”
To which my mother, his very loving grandmother said,
“Oh, but I AM the boss of this table.
So put away the car.”
And Patrick paused,
looked at his grandmother and said,
“Okay...but I AM the boss of this car.”

We like to be the boss.
We like to be in control.
So did the Hebrew people.
The invisible intangible God makes us uncomfortable at times,
We like things we can see and touch and hold.

We are good at creating  golden calves.

Splenda God
Sweet and Low God
Equal God.

Oh we’ll take artificial if it is quicker and easier and oh so modern.
Even if those false gods leave a bad and bitter aftertaste,
even if they threaten to destroy our health and happiness--
our families and our peace.

God is the real sweetener.

God is the one who leads us out of Egypt.
God is the one who ferries us across the Red Seas of our lives.
God is the one who walks right beside us through every wilderness.

Change your mind,
Moses asks God.
Remember, God, we are your people.
We make a mess of things sometimes.
We forget.

Now help us remember,
you are our God
and we are your people.

+     +     +