Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can God Trust Us?

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 28, 2008

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A - Proper 21
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 25:1-8
(Philippians 2:1-13)
Matthew 21:23-32

Can God Trust Us?

Now that a new television season has begun all the returning shows have been reminding us what happened last season. You’ve seen this, right? They start with one of the stars saying something like “Previously on Boston Legal.”

Sometimes I think we should do that in church. If you a miss a Sunday or two it’s easy to lose the thread of the Bible lessons that we read each week. It’s sort of like watching an episode of a TV show without having seen the previous episodes. I think that today’s Old Testament lesson of Moses striking the rock and water gushing forth calls for a little background, so here we go…

“Previously in Exodus…”

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God for help. God selected the unlikely Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom. Against all odds, and with some dramatic help from God, the Israelites escaped from slavery and start making their way to freedom. But, their problems were just beginning. Out in the desert they began to run out of food and began to complain to Moses and to lose faith in God. But God came through for the Israelites once again – giving them manna – this mysterious bread-like food that appeared all around them in the desert.

Which brings us to today’s episode of Exodus.

Last week the Israelites lost faith in God and Moses because there was no food to eat. This week they lose faith because there is no water to drink.

Now, it’s totally reasonable to be concerned about food and water when you’re out in the middle of the desert. But, the point of these stories is that the Israelites just can’t bring themselves to trust God, no matter how many times God comes through for them. Over and over God proves to be trustworthy. What will it take for people to trust God? The Passover wasn’t enough. The parting of the Red Sea wasn’t enough. The gift of manna – this bread from heaven – wasn’t enough. Today’s episode of Moses striking the rock with his staff and bringing forth water won’t be enough. After all that’s happened at the end of today’s passage the Israelites still ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” What will it take for people to trust God?

Well, these stories of a lack of trust in God are building to next week’s episode when God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses. Most of us are familiar with the rules contained in the Ten Commandments – but far more important than the individual rules is the idea behind the Commandments – the idea of Covenant.

In the Ten Commandments God once again makes a covenant with the people. Actually, in the Bible God has done this twice before – first with Noah and Abraham, but God does it in a dramatic and definitive way on Mt. Sinai. God says I am your God and you are my people. God says to the Israelites we have a covenant – what the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines as a bond of trust and love. God says, do you finally get it? You can trust me. We have a covenant – we have a bond of trust and love.

Which brings us to the New Testament lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is now in Jerusalem – the religious and political center of Israel. Jesus’ conflict with the religious establishment is intensifying. Obviously the “chief priests and the elders” are threatened by Jesus’ ministry – by his teaching and his power. And they had been earlier threatened by John the Baptist, too. The “chief priests and the elders” are threatened by John and Jesus because of their grassroots ministry. And they reject John and Jesus because they are operating outside of official channels. The “chief priests and elders” are unable to see God’s power working through John and Jesus.

The “chief priests and the elders” fail to trust God. They fail to trust that God is still at work in the world, often working through the unlikeliest of people and doing more than we can ask or imagine. The chief priests and the elders could see the power of God in John’s ministry but rather than putting their trust in God, these religious leaders close their hearts and minds.

And Jesus calls them on it, doesn’t he? Notice Jesus doesn’t tell the chief priests and the elders that they’ve missed the boat entirely, but he gives them the shocking news that the prostitutes and the tax collectors – the outcasts of society – were going into the Kingdom of God ahead of them.

Over and over the Bible tells the story of God’s trustworthiness. In our own lives we may have experienced God’s trustworthiness. And yet, it’s still hard for us to trust isn’t it?

It’s no news to anyone here that we are living in very difficult and frightening times. We have our Men’s Breakfast on Friday mornings and besides me most of the guys who come to the breakfast know a lot about finance. But, they’re nice to me – they speak slowly and try to explain what they’re talking about. Lately it’s been pretty bleak. Some days after the breakfast, instead of coming to work, I’m tempted to go back home and dive under the covers.

It is a time of anxiety. And yet as people of faith we know God’s trustworthiness. Trusting God doesn’t mean that there won’t be suffering and there won’t be loss. But we can trust that God is suffering along with us and that ultimately nothing is ever lost to God.

And for us Christians one of the most important signs of God’s trustworthiness is baptism. Later this morning we’ll be baptizing six (!) people. They will be initiated into the Church. The prayer book notes, “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

This bond of trust and love between God and us can never be broken – no matter what we do or don’t do. This bond – this covenant – between God and us is forever.

But things work both ways in the Baptismal Covenant. God promises to be with us always – to be completely trustworthy. And we make some promises of our own. So, I guess the question is not can we trust God, but can God trust us?

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Are we going to try to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ. Are we going to try to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Are we going to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

And in the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. Are we going to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

Will we try to keep our promises ow will we be like the second son in Jesus’ parable who says yes to his father, but does nothing?

Over and over, in good times and in bad times, God has proven to be trustworthy. The Israelites of long ago learned about God’s trustworthiness as they drank water in the desert. We learn about God’s trustworthiness in the water of baptism – when God forms an unbreakable, indissoluble bond with us. We can trust God. Can God trust us?


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mystics in the World

Drew University: Craig Chapel
September 17, 2008
The Feast of Hildegard of Bingen

Sirach 43:1-2,6-7,9-12,27-28
John 3:16-21
Psalm 104: 25-34

Mystics in the World

One of the great joys and privileges of serving as a priest down the street at Grace Episcopal Church is that, unusually for an Episcopal church, we have at least one service every day. This means I get to preach a lot and often I get to preach on what we call the lesser feasts – the days in the Episcopal calendar when we honor some of the great men and women of our Christian heritage.

I like to think of this task as part of my continuing education. Sometimes the lesser feast honors someone very familiar such as Augustine of Hippo or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But other times the lesser feast honors someone not very well known (at least to me) such as Bernard Mizeki or Thomas Gallaudet, to mention just two recent examples. When faced with preaching about people like that, it’s time to dust off those books from seminary and get busy continuing my education.

But I think it’s safe to say that out of all the great women and men honored on our church calendar, only one has made it to the Billboard charts. Only one has her name on the wall of the HMV store in midtown Manhattan, alongside other illustrious musicians such as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Only one had her music featured in the hit movie A Beautiful Mind. Only one has five or six different CDs of her music in the bin at Barnes and Noble on Route 10 in Morris Plains. And that one is the person we honor today, the remarkable Hildegard of Bingen.

That’s quite a lot of fame for a woman who was born 1098 in the Rhineland Valley. Apparently from a very early age Hildegard began having mystical experiences. Conveniently enough as the tenth child in her family she was tithed to the church – perhaps something to consider during your next stewardship campaign!

Eventually she and other women formed a convent and later Hildegard will found other convents. Her visions continued but Hildegard was reluctant to share them with others until at the age of 43 a voice told her to “See and speak! Hear and write!” And so she compiled descriptions of her visions along with her own interpretations in three books.

Then, as now, the institutional church was skeptical of those claiming to have mystical experiences, but Hildegard had a powerful patron in Bernard of Clairvaux who it just so happens had the ear of the pope. So Hildegard’s mystical writings received an imprimatur from the highest level and Hildegard and her work became famous across Europe.

She conducted four preaching tours and offered her advice and direction to the political and religious leaders of the day. She practiced medicine with a special focus on women’s health. She wrote about natural science and philosophy. In her spare time she wrote a liturgical drama, The Play of Virtues, in which women sing the parts of the virtues and the lone man in the cast plays the part of …the devil, who is unable to sing. And of course she composed large amounts of otherworldly and gorgeous music.

After her death in 1179 there was a movement to canonize her, using the newly created procedure in the Roman church to make new saints, but in Hildegard’s case it never quite came together. And then this remarkable woman was forgotten.

Until the 1970s when thanks to the new interest in the great Christian women, Hildegard and especially her music was rediscovered and celebrated.

Which is wonderful. But, I wonder about Hildegard the mystic. I wonder what we make of the vast Christian mystical heritage. For many centuries now, of course, many Christians have grown increasingly uneasy with mystical experience. How often have we heard someone – maybe even ourselves – say something like “If St. Francis were alive today he’d be institutionalized or be heavily medicated”? And the same might be said of Hildegard. I read that Oliver Sacks chalked up Hildegard’s mystical experiences as the result of migraines.

Is that good enough for us Christians in the 21st Century? Are we willing to dismiss the mystical as a symptom or manifestation of mental illness? Are we willing to leave mystical experience to the New Agers? Are we willing to conclude that God does not speak through mystical experience? Is mysticism embarrassing for Christians in the 21st Century? Are we open to the possibility of having mystical experiences? Have we had mystical experiences?

Those of you who have been ordained or are preparing for ordination may have received the advice that if you believe you’ve had mystical experiences do not under any circumstances tell your Commission of Ministry or whoever the gatekeepers are in your denomination. And that’s unfortunate, but probably good advice. The truth is once we start talking about mystical experiences all sorts of red flags go up.

So I won’t ask for a show of hands about how many of us have had some kind of mystical experience. But I do remember a sermon given by John Koenig, New Testament professor at General Seminary and longtime member of the seminary’s admissions committee. In his sermon he noted that a very large number of applicants to the seminary described experiences – maybe not quite on the level of Hildegard’s visions – but nonetheless experiences that could be described as mystical. Professor Koenig concluded that God speaks to us in this way more often than we might think.

Maybe the key way to recover our confidence in Christian mysticism is to recall that mystical experiences are not given for our enjoyment or edification, but instead they call us to action right here in the flesh and blood world in which we live. The Jesuit scholar Robert J. Eagan notes that mystical experiences are liberating – they remind us that things do not have to be this way.

Maybe we can recover our confidence in Christian mysticism by reminding ourselves that being a mystic doesn’t mean going off on a mountain forever and pondering but instead it means working to translate the mystical vision into a physical reality, in the manner of the 20th Century mystic Martin Luther King.

And sometimes even mystics themselves need to learn the role they are called to play in the world. I remember seeing a photograph of Thomas Merton taken on the day he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane. In the photo he’s laughingly holding up a newspaper, apparently thinking that he was saying farewell to the world described in its pages. Instead, of course, God was going to nudge Merton the cloistered Trappist monk into an even more public role in the world.

In the Christian tradition mysticism calls us to action in the world. And this connection is very clear in the visions of Hildegard. Her visions, for all their mystery and power, usually have a very concrete, here and now message.

For example, there is Hildegard’s vision of God enthroned. She writes: “I saw a great mountain of the color of iron, and enthroned on it One of such great glory that it blinded my sight.” And then God speaks to Hildegard and says: “O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice. Unlock for them the enclosure of mysteries that they, timid as they are, conceal in a hidden and fruitless field. Burst forth into a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation."

And then the voice of God concludes: “Arise, therefore, cry out and tell what is shown to you by the strong power of God’s help, for He who rules every creature in might and kindness floods those who fear him and serve him in sweet love and humility with the glory of heavenly enlightenment and leads those who persevere in the ways of justice to the joys of the eternal vision.”

The mystics – and you and I – are called to arise and cry out. Mystical experiences are not given for our own enjoyment but rather to give us the strength to speak out, to stand up for the oppressed, to speak the truth to power.

And that’s exactly what the great Christian mystics have done. Think of Paul and his powerful transforming mystical experience of the Risen Lord – which gave him the strength and courage to live a life filled with setbacks and adversity. And Hildegard bravely involved herself in the world – challenging those in authority; a medieval woman emboldened by her mystical experience.

And that’s what we’re called to do. We “Professional Christians” have a special role to play in a society that leaves no time for contemplation and is dismissive of mysticism. We are called to be mystics in the world. When I was ordained a deacon the bishop said something that has continued to haunt and challenge me. He said “We pay you to pray.” “We pay you to pray.”

That pay isn’t just for my own personal spiritual growth. That pay is for me, for us, to translate our spiritual – mystical – experiences into the flesh and blood world, right here and now.

And isn’t that the message of today’s gospel? This very familiar passage sums up the message of the very mystical fourth gospel. “For God so loved the world…” The flesh and blood, right here and now world. “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God’s love for the world – for this world - is expressed in the flesh and blood life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the mystical Jesus who had a vision of the Kingdom of God and who lived and proclaimed that vision.

Today we give thanks for Hildegard whose mysticism gave her the confidence and the courage to live and proclaim her Christian faith. May we be open to the possibility that God continues to speak. May we make the time and establish the quiet so we might have our own mystical experiences. And may we follow Hildegard’s example and in our own way, in our own time and place, be mystics in the world.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

God's Justice

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 7, 2008

Year A: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
(Romans 13:8-14)
Matthew 18:15-20

God’s Justice

With both the Democratic and Republican conventions behind us, we’re now moving into the heart of the presidential campaign season. In reality the campaign, of course, has been going on for just about four years now (although it seems longer even than that!) but now many of us are starting to really pay attention and to consider who will be our next president and vice president.

And maybe I’m na├»ve, but I really thought this campaign was going to be different than those in the past. The two presidential candidates have repeatedly pledged to run campaigns that focus on the serious issues facing our nation rather than launching – or encouraging - attacks on one another’s character and personality. Now it seems like those pledges weren’t worth very much.

Each election cycle it seems to me that we never get to talk about the really big issues facing our country. Maybe these issues are just too complicated or too controversial. Maybe it’s because these issues just can’t be boiled down to a catchy slogan or sound byte. Maybe we the people just aren’t very interested in these issues.

One of the issues I wish we would talk about during this election campaign – or any election campaign - is justice.

Over the years whenever I’ve spoken with a lawyer or a police officer they’ve usually thought that our justice system was seriously broken. They often had different ideas about what makes it broken – and how to fix it – but they agreed that things have gone very seriously wrong.

I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about the growth of the so-called prison industrial complex – how in some parts of the country the only growth industry is thanks to increasing incarceration. But the truth is unless we’re directly affected by the justice system it’s easy for us to ignore it – to think it’s out there somewhere and doesn’t have anything to do with us.

But I find the statistics shocking and alarming. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

The U.S has 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation; more even than China with its much larger population and repressive government.

If you count only adults, one out of every 100 Americans is locked up.

In terms of executions, we’re fifth worldwide – in the rogues’ gallery behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

A New York Times article in April talked to American and foreign experts on crime and law and summarized their explanations for this high incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racism, the war on drugs, “the American temperament,” and the lack of a social safety net. And some also pointed out that in many places judges are elected and so feel the need get public support by being tough.

I don’t know what to make of all of this. I am sure many of us here today can and do reasonably disagree about what’s wrong with our system and how to improve it. But, we’re not even having the conversation. I checked the McCain and Obama websites and both contained statements on a laundry list of issues, but neither directly addressed justice.

And this isn’t just about John McCain and Barack Obama. Justice isn’t just about national statistics. Justice isn’t just about the “justice system.” What about us? What’s our “justice system”? What’s our justice? What do we have to say and do about justice or the injustice right here in our community?

A couple of weeks ago I went with Grace Church parishioners to volunteer at the soup kitchen just up the road in Morristown. On that summer day we served 162 people – right here in prosperous Morris County! And my sense was that a large percentage of the guests belonged to the working poor. In some cases it was clear that they were day laborers who do backbreaking manual labor and yet are paid so little. What do we have to say and do about that injustice? What’s our justice?

And what about justice in our own lives? How do we treat people who wrong us? Are we quick to punish or are we quick to forgive? Do we hold tight to our grudges or do we let them go? What’s our justice?

Our presidential candidates may not have anything to say about justice, and we might not have much to say about justice, but today’s lessons from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew make it clear that God has a lot to say about justice.

The lesson from Exodus tells the story of Passover. It’s a very ancient and bloody story and scholars think it has its roots in very early harvest festivals that over time the people of Israel came to associate with their liberation from Egypt. And of course Passover remains a deeply meaningful, central event for the Jewish people.

I’d suggest that the story of Passover continues to have meaning not just because of ancient tradition but because it tells us something very important about God. Passover tells us that for God justice means being on the side of the weak, the poor and the oppressed. The Egyptians were the powerful ones. The Egyptians were the “winners.” The Egyptians were the oppressors. Yet, God took the side of the weak Israelite slaves and led them to liberation.

And in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel Jesus offers instruction on how to deal with a member of the community who has sinned. But before we go any further we need to put this little section from Matthew into context.

Just before it, Jesus asks the disciples, “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went away?” We might very well answer no to that question, but Jesus makes it clear that our just God does not give up on the one who has gotten away. The God of justice does not throw anyone away. God continues to reach out to us no matter what we do, no matter how lost we are. As Jesus concludes, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

And next week in church we’ll read the section just after today’s gospel passage where Peter asks Jesus the familiar question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says in reply, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In the gospel Jesus doesn’t ignore sin but Jesus makes it clear that God doesn’t throw anyone away and God offers forgiveness after forgiveness. How about us? What’s our justice?

And in today’s gospel passage Jesus offers a practical plan to put God’s justice into action when a member of the community sins – talk one on one. If that doesn’t work bring some witnesses. If that doesn’t work bring the issue before the whole church. And if the offender still doesn’t listen then Jesus says “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

This at first glance sounds pretty harsh. It sounds like this offender should be thrown away, tossed out, excommunicated from the church.

Except that Jesus has just told us that the God of justice never gives up on anyone. And Jesus is about to tell Peter and to tell us to forgive seventy-seven times – to forgive an infinite amount of times. And, if we stop and think about it, it’s exactly the outcasts – the Gentiles and the tax collectors – in other words, the sinners – with whom Jesus seems to spend a lot of time.

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus isn’t saying give up on this person or throw this person out. Jesus is saying be like me, keep at it, keep trying, keep reaching out to this person. The God of justice never gives up on us, never stops forgiving, never stops reaching out to us.

In thinking about God’s justice I’m reminded of Sister Helen Prejean. Some of you may know her from her book Dead Man Walking or the movie based on her book, where Sister Helen was played by Susan Sarandon. A couple of years ago she visited St. Peter’s Prep and spoke passionately against the death penalty. Two things she said that night, and has said many times elsewhere, have stuck with me.

First, “We are not the worst moments of our lives.”

And second, “We are worth more than the worst act we commit.”

That’s what God’s justice looks like. God is on the side of the weak, the poor and the oppressed. God continues to reach out to us no matter how lost we get. And God offers infinite forgiveness.

That’s God’s justice.

What’s our justice?


Monday, September 01, 2008

How Do We Do Ministry?

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 2008

How Do We Do Ministry?

In my last column I shared with you some of the responses I received from Grace parishioners to the question, “What is ministry?” Those answers gave good insight into the rich and diverse understanding of ministry that exists in our church. The follow-up question was, “How do we do ministry here at Grace Church?” I like that this question is more ambiguous and open to interpretation – people were able to write about the kinds of ministry that go on here at Grace while also being free to offer an evaluation of the work that we do. The responses I received were heartening, challenging and moving.

One very active parishioner offered this nuanced assessment: “Part of ministry is doing your absolute best, to the glory of God, even when the outside world sends the message that your ministry is irrelevant or too hard. Grace is an exceptional parish in that we are driven by our desire to please God and answer the call to our many ministries.” She continued with this challenging observation: “The biggest challenge Grace faces is our wealth. Although we do not ‘rest’, we do not push our boundaries, in terms of the kinds of programs we try or the community involvement we explore. I think ministry, at its core, demands risk and sacrifice. As a parish, we could grow in our faith by considering those ideas more mindfully – and more often.”

Another parishioner who has been in a leadership position at Grace offered a very moving description of how he was supported during an illness by both lay people and members of the clergy. He noted that this kind of ministry never gets included in the Annual Report, yet “…it may be one of the most important things we do in terms of ministry that more or less just happens because of what we have has a community.” He also identified two key challenges for Grace Church in terms of ministry. First, there is the task of helping visitors become part of the congregation. Second, there is the perhaps more difficult challenge of helping those already in the church to deepen their involvement.

A longtime parishioner offered a less than positive view of our corporate ministry “…our most usual form of ministry is ‘checkbook ministry’. We give away money that isn’t needed to make ourselves comfortable. One of the reasons why the Recycling Ministry and the Community Soup Kitchen are as popular as they are probably is that they aren’t checkbook ministries.”

The issue of “checkbook ministry” is worth thinking about. The truth is that many ministries in our community, including the Community Soup Kitchen and the Recycling Ministry, benefit from the financial support of Grace Church. If all we as a church ever do is write out checks and let other people do the physical labor then something has gone very wrong in our understanding of ministry and sacrifice. However, there are some of us who, perhaps because of age or family and work responsibilities, find it very difficult to give time and/or physical labor to our ministries. No more than any other part of our lives, when it comes to ministry we need to examine our consciences and ask if we are serving to the best of our ability.

A younger member of the congregation gave an upbeat view of ministry at Grace. She wrote, “But HOW MUCH there is to do that allow opportunities for people to serve in so many ways. There are ministries that serve our parish and allow us to continue to do what we do. Others that serve the community. Many that allow both to happen.” She concluded, “But most of the ministries here seem to fill multiple needs – the needs of those serving and those being served.”

Obviously ministry is a complex and important topic and there are wide-ranging perspectives here at Grace. Defining ministry and reflecting on how we do ministry is important work for all of us. One thing is certain – ministry is not a choice between “inreach” and outreach. I would suggest that the idea that we should take care of others instead of taking care of ourselves is a false and ultimately destructive choice. In the long run, only a healthy person or a healthy community is strong enough to serve others. We all know people who have burned out because they didn’t take proper care of their own needs. The same can also be true of the church.

Soon the new parish hall will offer us new opportunities for ministry. So this is a great time to ask – and answer – important questions about ministry. What is ministry? How do we do ministry at Grace Church? How can we get more people more deeply involved in ministry? What do we think about so-called “checkbook ministries”? How can we fit taking good care of the Grace community with offering ministry to the wider world?

I hope you are interested in these questions If you are, then please join us on Sunday, September 28, when I will lead the first in a series of adult seminars on ministry. Hope to see you there.