Sunday, June 14, 2009

How God Sees the World

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 14, 2009

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Year B, Proper 6
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
(2 Corinthians 6:6-10; 14-17)
Mark 4:26-34

How God Sees the World

Well, it’s now the middle of June and graduation season is drawing to a close. A couple of weeks ago colleges and universities across the country held their commencements and now high schools are sending their newly minted graduates off into the world.

We’ve already heard some wonderful senior sermons here at Grace and we have a couple more next Sunday. I’m sure it’s both an exciting and scary time both for the graduates and for the people who love them.

Of course, at graduation ceremonies it’s very common to have a commencement speaker. You know how it usually works. Colleges try to invite distinguished alumni, or politicians, or successful business people or, increasingly, celebrities to make a speech to the graduates and their families. Ideally the speech should have some piece of wisdom for the graduates to take with them into the next phase of their lives.

Unfortunately, more often than not, these speeches from distinguished and famous people are filled with clich├ęs and platitudes and are almost entirely forgettable. And it seems this year’s speeches were more of the same. Now, to be fair, this year the college commencement speakers had an even bigger challenge than usual because the grads in their caps and gowns are entering a job market with very limited opportunities.

So one after the other these distinguished and famous people tried to put their best spin on the current situation and the prospects facing the graduates. A few weeks ago the New York Times ran a piece quoting from some of these commencement speeches. Here are some of the excerpts.

In his controversial appearance at Notre Dame, President Obama told the graduates, “Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence. It is a privilege and responsibility afforded to few generations.”

For his part, Vice President Biden told the graduates, “Remember from your physics class…your hands are on the steering wheel of the automobile. It’s going straight. And one slight turn sends the car in a direction fundamentally different and initially unalterable in the direction it’s been going in. Few people – few generations – get to put their hands on the steering wheel at that moment.”

Um, OK. If that doesn’t inspire you, here’s Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, addressing the graduates of Boston College School of Law. “We are in a recession and the labor market is weak. Many of you may not have gotten the job you wanted; some may have had offers rescinded or the start of employment delayed.” To soften the blow he added, “So, my advice to you is to stay optimistic. Things usually have a way of working out.”

Finally in her speech at Tulane, Ellen DeGeneres tried to buck up the grads by recalling when she was 19: “I was living in a basement apartment, I had no heat, no air, I had a mattress on the floor and the apartment was infested with fleas.”

Reading these excerpts from the commencement addresses and thinking about today’s lessons, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a mistake for colleges to ask the distinguished and the famous to speak to the graduates. Maybe the colleges would get better speeches if they followed God’s example.

God doesn’t see the world the way we do. Of course God loves the distinguished and famous but God doesn’t seem to be impressed by them. And if God were choosing commencement speakers I’m pretty sure God wouldn’t choose the people the world considers distinguished or famous.

Instead, throughout history God turns to the young, to the old, to the anonymous, to the poor and to the seemingly ordinary. God turns to these people to do God’s work. God turns to these “nobodies” to do great things.

While the world dismisses the seemingly ordinary, the nobodies – it’s exactly these people God turns to over and over again to do great things.

And isn’t that one of the messages in today’s lessons?

In that long reading from First Samuel, God has become disappointed in Israel’s first king, Saul, so God sends the prophet Samuel to meet the new king God has chosen. Now, although by this time Samuel was pretty familiar with the ways of God, when Samuel meets Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, he sees the eldest son the way the world would see him. Samuel is impressed by his seniority and appearance, and figures that the oldest is God’s chosen. That’s the way of the world, right?

But that’s not God’s way. That’s not the way God sees the world. So God has to remind Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

“The Lord does not see as mortals see.” God selects Jesse’s youngest and least likely son, David – someone although apparently good-looking, but still undistinguished and certainly not famous. God sees that this nobody should be the king of Israel.

All of the parables of Jesus challenge us to see the world the way God sees the world. Today we heard two parables from the Gospel of Mark – both of which illustrate great abundance and power coming from the seemingly ordinary and insignificant – great abundance and power coming from the tiniest of seeds.

How would Jesus’ first followers have heard these parables? How would the first readers and hearers of the Gospel of Mark have understood these parables a couple of generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus? It is likely that the first followers of Jesus and the first readers and hearers of the Gospel of Mark would have identified with the tiny, seemingly insignificant seeds.

From our perspective as Christians, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the central event of human history. Yet, in the First Century the vast majority of people even in Israel were unaware of Jesus of Nazareth.

True to form, God had once again chosen someone the world saw as an insignificant nobody to do remarkable things.

And a generation or two later, the Jesus movement was still small and struggling, a bunch of nobodies, still just a small seed. And so those first readers and hearers of the Gospel of Mark would have seen themselves as those small seeds – small seeds that with God’s grace have the potential to bring forth great abundance.

From our perspective, we know that those small First Century seeds took root and grew into the worldwide Christian church – and here we are today.

Yet, despite all of this history, despite our own experience, most of the time we don’t see the world the way God sees the world. Like Samuel we get impressed by appearances, by stature. Like colleges we give our attention to those the world considers distinguished and famous and ignore those the world sees as insignificant nobodies.

But at our best, and with the grace of God, we sometimes do see the world the way God sees the world. At our best and with the grace of God we see that everyone has infinite value and importance – no matter what the world thinks of them.

In her beautiful sermon last week, Katie Doyle talked about Grace Church as a place where there is no age gap. She said it’s a place where she has friends who are three years old and friends who are old enough to be her parents and grandparents.

What a powerful example of seeing the world the way God sees the world!

Today in our Rite 13 ceremony we honor our young people on or near their 13th birthday. We honor them not because the world says “children are our future.” No, we honor them because of who they are right now – and all that they give to our Christian community right now.

What a powerful example of seeing the world the way God sees the world!

Lately some of us have been learning a great deal about poverty right here in Madison. We’ve discovered that poverty is carefully hidden here and there’s whole lot more need than we expected. And we are beginning to think about ways that we can serve people right here in town that the world sees as insignificant nobodies but who God sees as having infinite value and importance.

And it turns out Grace Church has been given a challenge to see the world – to see Madison – the way God sees it. Thanks to Marilyn D’Amelio at Central Avenue School, we’ve learned of four or five families in town that cannot afford membership at the pool. If we could raise $2000 we could make a very real difference in the lives of some of our neighbors this summer. So, next Sunday we are going to station some of our youth at the end of each service just as we did for the Souper Bowl collection to accept your donations to help these people who the world sees as insignificant nobodies but who God sees as people of infinite value. Kit has even come up with a name: “Pooling Our Resources.” This is a chance for us to show that we see the world the way God sees the world.

And with God’s grace we can see the world as God sees the world. With God’s grace we can see that the people the world considers as insignificant nobodies actually have infinite value and importance.

Our challenge is simply to open our hearts to God’s grace and allow God to transform the way see the world.


Monday, June 01, 2009

Through the Wringer

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison NJ
The Messenger
June 2009

“Through the Wringer”

Recently I had the privilege and joy of officiating at my first wedding. A few months ago a good friend of mine from college called and asked if I would “marry” her and her future husband. I agreed on the condition that we go through the normal pre-marital conversations – which might mean talking about difficult and personal issues. They both agreed, and in fact seemed eager to have the opportunity to talk about the often difficult journeys that brought them together. My friend and her new husband have experienced serious illness and much loss in their lives. Talking with them, I became increasingly moved that despite everything they had been through they were still willing to make this serious commitment to one another and to have so much hope for the future.

For their wedding they chose to read a passage from the Letter to the Philippians. St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”

In my wedding sermon, I mentioned that, much like the bride and groom, St. Paul had been “through the wringer” when he wrote these words. He was writing from prison and had experienced all sorts of painful setbacks in his attempts to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yet, despite having been “through the wringer” – or maybe because of this suffering – Paul’s commitment to his mission and his confidence in God was stronger than ever. And as I’ve thought more about this image, I’ve realized that, like my friends and St. Paul, many of us have been “through the wringer” lately.

Just since the fall we have endured an intense presidential election – with a result that elated some and disappointed others. Our country has faced a seemingly sudden and nauseating economic collapse, pirate attacks, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a loss of stability in Pakistan, “swine flu” and news about a foiled terrorist plot in the Bronx.

Here at Grace Church, many of us have grieved over the death of a family member or a friend while others have worried about their own health or the well-being of a loved one. Some of us have lost our jobs and many more are anxious about their future employment. Those who have retired or are nearing retirement have been dismayed by the loss of their investments. The increasing number of empty storefronts along Main Street in Madison is vivid testimony that this community has been seriously affected by the recession. Yes, we have been “through the wringer.”

As is true with my friends and St. Paul, these difficult experiences can make the bonds between and among us – and our relationship with God – stronger. The longer days and (hopefully) somewhat slower pace of summer offers us an opportunity to reflect on what we have been through during this difficult year of being “through the wringer.” With a little effort we can use summer as a chance to reflect, to deepen our relationships with one another, and to make room for God’s power within us.

In terms of making room for God, maybe this summer we can try to set aside just a little bit of quiet time for personal prayer and reflection. Even just five minutes can make a huge difference in our lives. Maybe this summer we might do some reading to challenge or nourish us spiritually. There are a few books I find myself going back to over and over. One is a book of Christian spiritual exercises called Sadhana: A Way to God. It was written by an Indian Jesuit named Anthony de Mello and offers a user-friendly approach to various prayer techniques. Another book I frequently dip into is Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. In this book Kathleen Norris offers brief, thoughtful reflections on religious and theological terms such as “Grace,” “Trinity” and “Hospitality.”

And, of course, Grace Church is still going strong during the summer. Maybe this summer you can make time for one of the weekday services. Many of us are excited that this summer “Mass on the Grass” returns on Wednesday evenings after last year’s hiatus caused by the construction. Later on Wednesday evenings we are going to have a summer-long reading and discussion of an excellent book, What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. Plus, our “First Fridays” potluck and speaker series will continue in June, July and August!

I am planning to use this summer to take a breath and to reflect on “the wringer” we have all been through this year. My prayer is that we can take advantage of this summer to strengthen our relationships with one another and to make room for God.