Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent: A Call to Mindfulness

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 2008

Advent: A Call to Mindfulness

Recently I was interviewed by a writer from our diocesan newspaper, The Voice, for an article about the ordination process in our diocese. My experience of “the process” was generally positive, but as I reflected back, I realized how much of that time I spent thinking about the future rather than living in the moment. From the day I met with my home parish rector to talk about my sense of call to the priesthood I began a long period of nervous wondering about the future…

Would I be accepted into the process? Would I fit in at seminary? What kind of grades would I get? Would I be made a postulant and later a candidate? Would I be ordained? And lingering behind all these questions were two really big questions: Would I get a job? And if I did, where would I be working?

Eventually, of course, all those questions and more were answered. But as I think back I feel some regret because my relentlessly anxious focus on the future meant that I missed out on truly being present during those important and once in a lifetime years. Missing from my life during much of that time was a sense of mindfulness.

Few have written as effectively about mindfulness as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his teaching he has stressed the central importance of mindfulness – being aware of the miracles that occur with every breath that we take. I suspect most of us are not very good at mindfulness. Instead, we are usually thinking ahead to the next item on our to-do list. But Thich Nhat Hanh, along with many other spiritual masters, insists that we must pay attention and see the beauty in such seemingly ordinary events as eating a meal, washing dishes, taking a walk, or even simply breathing.

In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh sees the Eucharist as a powerful act of mindfulness. He writes, “The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, ‘Eat this. This is my flesh.’ He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life.”

In our society it’s a real challenge to live mindfully. For many of us, life is extremely fast-paced. We have so little time to reflect, to be mindful, or even to take a breath. And many of us who do have the time are filled with anxieties surrounding the economy, the election, the environment… And the media seem to be in the business of keeping us anxious. A while back I visited someone and one of the cable business news channels was on the TV. Hearing the frenzied reports accompanied by dramatic music, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Lately I haven’t been watching much TV, so maybe I’m more sensitive to it – but I’m pretty sure that TV is not much help if we hope to live mindfully.

Sometimes even the Church can be a challenge to living mindfully. Many of us have watched with excitement and wonder as the new parish hall has grown from an idea on paper to a concrete and steel reality. Over these months of construction and anticipation, I wonder if we have been mindful enough of the miracle of the present. At the same time, in the midst of an economic crisis there is anxiety about stewardship – will Grace Church be able to provide the same level of ministry as we have in the past? In a time of obvious uncertainty, have we been mindfully keeping an eye out for the miracles that are occurring right here and now in the present?

Fortunately, the Church also offers us many opportunities to be mindful. Our Christmas-shopping-crazy society works against it, but in a very real way, Advent is the season of mindfulness – when we are called to slow down and mindfully prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and also for the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Day.

So let’s consider Advent our special call to live more mindfully, to breathe a little slower and deeper, to keep our eyes open for the miracles all around us each day of our lives, and to open our hearts to the greatest of all gifts, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reminders to be Mindful

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 23, 2008

Year A: The Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
Matthew 25:31-46

Reminders to be Mindful

Since lately life has been really busy, I’ve been making an extra effort to live mindfully. I’ve been trying to live more in the present and not be so concerned with the future – or so concerned with the past for that matter.

I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to what’s going on around me. And I’ve been trying to notice and give thanks for the simple joys of life – a quiet dinner with Sue, a good laugh with friends and colleagues. I’ve been trying to be mindful, but, to be honest, it’s not easy.

Living a life of mindfulness – a life of really paying attention to the present moment – is not easy under the best of circumstances. And, of course, many of us are not living in the best of circumstances right now. Many of us have watched with astonishment as so much wealth seems to have evaporated. There’s a lot of anxiety about the future and probably some regret about the choices made in the past.

Anxiety about the future and regret about the past – a bad combination and not very helpful to living mindfully in the moment.

And, unfortunately, sometimes even church doesn’t help us live mindfully. Even the church is affected by the anxieties of the world – will we be able to afford all that we hope to do? What will stewardship look like this year? If we need to, where will we cut the budget?

And sometimes even the Sunday Scripture lessons don’t seem to offer much help with living mindfully. I was very glad that Dan Lawson and Tim Barrett were given the assignment last Sunday of preaching on the parable of the talents – a parable that isn’t really very clear and, in some interpretations, a parable that is downright disturbing. And, it’s a parable that, at least for me, is not much help with lessening my anxieties and living mindfully in the present.

And then today we come to the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday that we honor Christ the King.

Can “Christ the King” help us live more mindfully – to lessen our anxieties – to open our eyes to the blessings and opportunities that are all around us?

There’s some irony in the title Christ the King, isn’t there? After all, Jesus was not exactly the kind of king that the world expected in the first century – or, I guess, not even the type of king the world expects today.

Back in the First Century there were lots of ideas about the Messiah-King but one of the most popular, naturally enough, was the expectation of a king who would defeat the Romans and restore the mighty Jewish kingdom of David. Christ the King didn’t fulfill that expectation at all.

And today in the 21st Century, we still have kings. I guess most are viewed as romantic or nostalgic or tabloid fodder or just foolish and expensive holdovers from an earlier era. Have any of you been watching the series “Monarchy,” the series about the British royal family, on PBS? It’s interesting and well done and I admit to a soft spot for Queen Elizabeth – I mean, she’s been doing the same job since 1952 and shows no signs of slowing down! But I wonder how being royalty affects a person’s psyche? What’s it like having people bow to you, or curtsey or address you as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness?” I don’t know whether it’s true but I’ve read stories that Prince Charles has someone squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush – imagine having that job! And imagine being used to that kind of luxury and service!

So, by the extravagant standard of 21st Century monarchy, Christ the King isn’t much of a king at all.

So, just what kind of king is Christ the King? Jesus lays it out very clearly in today’s gospel. Christ the King is the king who stands with those who hunger and thirst. Christ the King is the king who stands with the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King is the king who stands with the nobodies. Christ the King is the king who stands with those who are easy to ignore, those who are easy for society to throw away.

Christ the King stands so closely with the least and the lowly that when we serve them we serve him.

And the Evangelist Matthew is very clear: we’ll be judged - we’ll be held accountable - on how well we have served the poor, how much we have sacrificed for the “nobodies”, for the “disposable people”.

The Rev. James Forbes, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York (and Lauren Ackland’s preaching professor!) sums all this up with a great line, “No one gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

“No one gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

A lot of us have been going to church for a long time, yet, it’s easy for us to forget this essential truth. Especially if we’re wrapped up in our own anxieties and regrets, it’s hard to be mindful – it’s hard to see the gifts we have been given and it’s all too easy to miss the opportunities all around us to serve Christ the King by serving others.

We know that we are called to serve others. We know that we are expected to serve others. We know all this but we need to be reminded. We need reminders to be mindful.

Maybe because I’ve been trying to be particularly mindful, this week I received three powerful reminders of our call to serve others.

One of the best parts of working at Grace Church is that we have at least one service every day. And, as I’ve mentioned before, that means that we commemorate all the so-called “lesser feasts” – the days when the Church honors the great Christian women and men of the past. And if a lesser feast falls on a day when we have the Eucharist, then either Lauren or I are privileged to preach about these faithful people.

Sometimes that means I have to do a little research, like I did to get ready for Wednesday when we honored Elizabeth of Hungary. Before Wednesday I knew only one thing about Elizabeth; I knew that the College of St. Elizabeth just up the road at Convent Station is named in her honor.

I discovered that Elizabeth was born into the Hungarian royal family in 1207. So she grew up in castles and palaces. I’m not sure if there was any toothpaste or if they had toothbrushes back then – but nevertheless certainly she lived a life of great privilege and relative comfort. Yet from an early age this princess, inspired by the example of Francis of Assisi, was deeply committed to her faith and deeply committed to serving the poor and the sick.

She married Ludwig, a German prince, and her faith and service continued to deepen. In 1226, while Ludwig was away in Italy, their land was hit by floods and the plague. Elizabeth opened a hospital below their castle, and gave away much of the royal clothing and many royal possessions.

I also learned a wonderful story about Elizabeth. The story goes that one night Elizabeth gave a leper her place in the royal bed. As you might imagine, when Ludwig awoke at first he was terrified to find a leper next to him! But then, the story continues, Ludwig’s “eyes were opened” and he saw that in fact the leper was the Crucified Christ.

Elizabeth of Hungary offers a powerful example of “I was sick and you took care of me.” Elizabeth of Hungary offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

My second reminder to be mindful came on Wednesday night at Plaza Lanes, the bowling alley on Main Street. I was there with some of the Drew campus ministry students for a night of bowling that we call “EpiscoBowl”. When I got there I saw that a couple Grace Church parishioners were there, bowling in their Wednesday night league. I said hello, we talked for a few minutes and then we all got busy bowling.

A little while later I heard an announcement about the winner of a raffle, who received a $25 Stop’n Shop gift card. Since I hadn’t bought a ticket, I didn’t pay much attention.

A few minutes later one of our parishioners came over saying that her friend – not someone who goes to this church, not someone I’d ever met – was the winner and wanted to donate the gift card to the church for one someone comes by asking for food. IN this time when we’re all watching our budgets very carefully, this woman could have put the gift card to good use for herself and her family. Instead she gave it away.

I went over to say thank you and it was clear she wasn’t interested in gratitude or any attention for her kindness and generosity.

This woman at the bowling alley offers a powerful example of “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.” This woman at the bowling alley offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

One last story and one last reminder to be mindful. Last weekend we received a call here at church from a woman – not a member of the parish - who said that she had been violently abused by her husband and was trying to find a place to stay. She had tried the battered women’s shelter in Morristown but it was full. That’s a horrifying fact and something worth thinking and praying about. Then she had looked at a homeless shelter but she was afraid to stay there. She asked if there was some way that we could help her.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I told the story to Mary Lea and she suggested a parishioner who was knowledgeable about these kinds of situations – maybe she’d have some ideas. When I called her this parishioner stunned me when she said, “She can stay with me and my family.” I was stunned by the kindness, generosity and hospitality.

And that’s exactly what happened. This frightened and lost woman was given a safe, comfortable - and comforting - place to stay.

Our parishioner offers a powerful example of “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Our parishioner offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

So, we’ve come to the end of the church year. Today we honor Christ the King – the king who stands with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King stands so close with these people that when we serve them we serve him.

And we are called to be mindful – to pay attention – and not miss the opportunities to serve that are all around us. And if we’re mindful, if we serve, then, God willing, we will all receive our letter of recommendation from the poor.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Saints: Brokenness and Second Chances

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2, 2008

All Saints’ Sunday
(Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14)
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 149

The Saints: Brokenness and Second Chances

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

For a lot of us lately life really has seemed like a great ordeal, hasn’t it? It’s interesting that there has been one constant in the current – and, thankfully, almost over – political season. In poll after poll the vast majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans and independents - have said that our country is on the wrong track. We disagree on who deserves the blame but people seem to agree that things are fundamentally broken. Our political system is broken. Our economy is broken. And our very society – the way we live together, our values, our priorities, all of it is broken.

And, although the question doesn’t come up in too many polls, I bet most people -if we’re honest with ourselves - would admit that we are broken, too.

For us Christians the brokenness of the world and our own brokenness should not come as news. Reaching all the way back to the beginnings of our tradition in Judaism there has been a clear understanding that creation, the world, is broken.

After all, what’s the story of Adam and Eve about? It’s a story that offers an explanation of an obvious fact – things have gone terribly wrong, the world is broken. We are broken.

Everyone knows the Adam and Eve story, but you might not know another creation story that’s not in the Bible but comes from Jewish mysticism.
In this myth the infinite God had to withdraw a little bit, create a little space, sort of like a womb in the heart of God’s being where the finite, physical universe could exist. This withdrawal of God is called tzimtzum. And, according to the myth, in this womb-like space there were a set of vessels designed to receive the divine light. I imagine them sparkling and looking like crystals. The myth continues that God sent out a single beam of divine light that was supposed to be contained by these vessels. But things didn’t go according to plan. The divine light was too powerful and so the vessels shattered. Everything is broken. This shattering is called shevira.

According to the myth, most of the light returned to God – but not all of it. Some of the divine light became trapped in the material world. And so the job of humanity is tikkun – the healing and restoration of creation. According to the myth, we heal this broken world by finding those divine sparks, bringing out the good that exists in everything and everyone.

I think it’s a fascinating myth. In part I think it’s fascinating because this three-part process of creation, brokenness and restoration is seen as an ongoing process. It didn’t just happen at the beginning of creation. Creation, brokenness and restoration continue right now, in our own lives, every day.

For us Christians, brokenness and the healing of brokenness is at very heart of our faith, isn’t it? We believe that God became a human being in Jesus and human beings killed him. Jesus is broken and so God knows brokenness not in some spiritual way but in flesh and blood. I think one of the most powerful parts of our liturgy is the fraction – when the priest breaks the bread and proclaims “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”

The idea is that the sound and sight of the bread cracking symbolizes Jesus’ sacrifice for us, Jesus’ brokenness on the cross. One of my seminary professors thought that we should wait for a few minutes after the fraction before continuing the service – to give us all time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice and brokenness.

But, of course, God didn’t leave it at that. God didn’t give up. God continued the work of restoration in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So we can all agree, I think, that the world is broken. And we can agree that brokenness and healing of brokenness is at the very heart of our faith.
But today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. What does brokenness and restoration have to do with the saints?

The saints are our role models. Over the centuries the saints have recognized the brokenness of creation. The saints have recognized their own brokenness. In the words of the Book of Revelation, they have lived through the “great ordeal.”
Think of two of the greatest saints from the start of Christianity: St. Peter abandoned Jesus in his greatest moment of need and denied even knowing him – denied Jesus three times. St. Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus. Yes, the saints recognize their own brokenness. Peter and Paul clearly recognized their own brokenness. But the saints don’t stop there. Instead the saints allow God to use them to restore the broken creation.

St. Irenaeus was an early saint who had a keen insight into the restoration of creation. Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyon in the Second Century, developed the idea of “recapitulation.” Following the lead of St. Paul, Irenaeus saw Jesus as the new Adam. Thanks to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we broken human beings have a second chance – a do-over.

On the J2A pilgrimage in California one of the many fun things we did was play beach volleyball. Now I know what you’re thinking and you’re right – I wasn’t very good at beach volleyball. But to get a cheap laugh each time I served and missed getting the ball over the net by a mile, I’d yell out “do over!” Everyone laughed, at least the first hundred times, but Chris Wilde and the kids never did let me have a do-over though.

But St. Irenaeus believed that in Jesus all of us broken people get a do-over. In Jesus this broken world gets a second chance.

The saints are our role models in faith. They clearly recognize the brokenness of the world and their own brokenness. They take advantage of the second chance offered by God in Jesus. The saints take advantage of the do-over offered by God. With God’s help, the saints work to restore the broken creation.

I think for us the hardest part of imitating the saints is admitting our own brokenness. Admitting that we don’t have it all together is hard to do. Most of us don’t like to show weakness or vulnerability. Most of us don’t want to admit that we are broken.

But the saints understand that it’s in admitting our own brokenness that we make just enough room for God’s grace to work in and through us.

I saw a powerful display of admitting brokenness last Friday when Sue and I went to a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. It’s a piece I like a lot and have mentioned it in other sermons before. Though, I have to admit it was a different, even more powerful, experience hearing it and seeing it for the first time as a priest.

In the beginning of the performance celebrant is an apparently joyful, faithful, “together” person – leading his people in song and prayer. Gradually over the course of the show the doubts and anxieties and demands of the people begin to wear him down. His own faith is weakened. Cracks begin to appear in his fa├žade and finally in an incredibly dramatic moment, during the mass, he angrily throws a chalice on the floor and it shatters.

As he sits on the floor in the midst of the broken chalice and the spilled wine, in the midst his own brokenness, the celebrant sings the refrain, “How easily things get broken…”

But then something remarkable happens. The people who had driven the celebrant to despair gather around and literally and symbolically pick up the pieces – they begin the restoration. By admitting his own brokenness the celebrant made just enough room for God’s grace to work in and through him - a very important lesson for all of us.

The saints are our role models. The saints recognize the brokenness of creation. The saints recognize their own brokenness. But the saints don’t stop there. Instead the saints allow God to use them to restore the broken creation.
And that’s what you and I are called to do. We are called to recognize our own brokenness and allow God to use us to restore the broken creation. We are called not only to be like the saints. We are called to be saints.

And one of the great things about being here at Grace Church is that since we have so many baptisms we all get reminded of just how to be saints.
In the Baptismal Covenant essentially we are asked if we will be saints.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God and Christ? Will you be a saint?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you be a saint?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you be a saint?

How we answer these questions and how we live out our answers will make all the difference in allowing God to heal our own brokenness and allowing God to use us to heal the brokenness of creation.

The saints are our role models. The saints recognize the brokenness of creation. The saints recognize their own brokenness. But the saints don’t stop there. The saints allow God to use them to restore the broken creation.

We are called to be saints. We are called to pick up the broken pieces of this broken world. And if we answer the call then we will take our place with the saints – with those “who have come out of the great ordeal.” We will take our place with the saints – with those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2008

Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes

For the past week or so I have been reading Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s a good thing that Chabon is a brilliant writer because in this book he attempts to tell an improbable alternate history. In the novel, as in actual history, the State of Israel was created in the years after World War II and at least in part as a response to the Holocaust. In the novel, unlike in actual history, Israel is defeated and destroyed in 1948. After the defeat, many Jews migrate to the extremely unlikely location of Sitka, Alaska, where the American government allows them to set up a kind of colony, at least for a time. The story – described on the book jacket as “a gripping whodunit, a love story, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption” – takes place in this fictional, frigid, absurd and yet believable Jewish settlement.

Reading this amazing book I’ve been reminded of other authors who have attempted to create alternate histories. Probably the best I’ve ever read is Philip Roth’s remarkable novel, The Plot Against America. Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark that grows increasingly dismayed and fearful when Charles Lindbergh, after defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, moves the United States toward an alliance with Hitler’s Germany.

Especially for us history buffs, it’s fascinating to imagine great what ifs of the past. But it’s not just historians and novelists who have pondered these kinds of questions. Scientists have also wondered about alternatives to the universe that we know. Recently PBS aired a program, “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” about the physicist Hugh Everett who back in the 1950s proposed the “Many Worlds Interpretation.” Everett’s idea was that are theoretically infinite universes in which every possibility occurs. To give a silly example, according to Everett’s theory, if one day I walk down Main Street and decide to go to On a Roll for lunch there would also be universes where I decide to go to the Nautilus, Bagel Chateau, or even McCool’s!

My understanding of quantum physics is admittedly more than a little shaky, but the “Many Worlds Interpretation” as well as novels that imagine alternative history serve as reminders of the importance and the consequences of the choices that we make. I am sure all of us can think of decisions that were crucial in determining the shape of our lives. And I am sure that all of us can imagine alternative histories, or parallel universes, where our lives turned out to be very different – for better or for worse - from the lives we are living.

I don’t know if there really is a parallel universe where I am still a high school teacher, but I can imagine an alternative history where I am in my classroom grading papers and planning classes. Instead, obviously, I chose to go to seminary, setting in motion a chain of events that have led me to serve as your curate. Although there are parts of teaching that I miss, I’m very glad that my history unfolded in a way that has brought me to Grace Church.

Stewardship season is now upon us in the midst of much economic uncertainty and anxiety. As we all pray about and reflect on our church support maybe it would be a helpful exercise to take some time to imagine an alternative history or a parallel universe without Grace Church in our lives. How different would our lives be without the solid foundation of this church? How different would our lives be without this place where we come together again and again to hear and tell our stories and to receive Jesus into our bodies and souls? I know my life would be much poorer without the gift or working and worshiping with all of you. It’s a tough time for many of us, but I can’t imagine a better history or a better universe than the one that we are sharing together here at Grace Church.