Sunday, February 28, 2010

God Cuts a Deal: The Joy of Confession and Repentance

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 28, 2010

Year C: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
(Philippians 3:17-4:1)
Luke 13:31-35

God Cuts a Deal: The Joy of Confession and Repentance

As part of our service of Holy Eucharist we always say some form of the confession and then either Lauren or I stand and offer God’s forgiveness for our sins. When you stop and think about what we say and do and believe happens each Sunday, the only response is to feel awe. We offer our repentance and each time God offers forgiveness.

But, the truth is that for those of us who come to church a lot the service can become pretty much rote – often we don’t stop and think about it much at all. The confession and the absolution can become simply the words we say and hear before we get to the peace – when we get to take a break and say hi to our friends, our parents, our kids. Or, for some of us, the peace is the time which we just grin and bear it until we get to announcements and the rest of the service.

Since confession and absolution can become overly familiar and routine, during Lent, during this season of repentance, we start the service with the Penitential Order. Hopefully putting our confession and absolution up front gets our attention and prompts us to say these familiar words more mindfully.

But, sometimes putting the confession at the start of the service may still not seem like enough. Sometimes – maybe because we believe we have done something so serious –we still don’t feel forgiven. When we feel that way then it might be time for sacramental confession, one-on-one with a priest. As our friend Bernie Poppe, rector of St. George’s in Maplewood, recently pointed out in a sermon, most Episcopalians are unaware that we have that kind of confession in the Episcopal Church. But we do –it’s right there in the prayer book, “Reconciliation of a Penitent” starting on page 447.

Those of you, who, like me, grew up as a Roman Catholic, may be feeling a little anxious right now. I went to a Catholic grammar school, and by and large I liked the nuns and priests of the school and the parish. But, the thought of going into the dark confessional and revealing my sins to the priest was terrifying.

I can remember us as kids lined up, waiting to go in and face the music. To be honest, at least some of us strained to make out the mumbles we could hear coming through the confessional door. When our classmates would come out, we’d scan their faces to get a hint of just how bad it had been and what kind of penance they now had to make. Usually the boy or girl who had just received absolution of all of his or her sins, would shyly avoid eye contact, head back to a pew and begin to recite the required number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

The confessional itself was a weird and forbidding space – a small, dark room with a screen separating me from the priest. Most of the time I worried that the priest could recognize my voice as I revealed the sin of not being nice to my sister, talking back to my parents, and not cleaning my room.

This was the 1970s – a time of great change in the church. During that time the confessionals were ditched and replaced with face-to-face confession in an all-too-bright room. They actually had a screen available if you’d still prefer that level of privacy. From my point of view we had gone from very bad to even worse.

My last confession as a Roman Catholic was in high school on a retreat. Confession was offered as an option, and I remember thinking now that I was a mature teenager it was time to get over my fear of confession. I sat face-to-face alone with the priest, took a deep breath and told him my sins. So far, so good. Then he told me to say the Act of Contrition. At first I thought he meant later. But then as he looked at me, waiting, I realized he meant, say the Act of Contrition now.

There was just one problem – I had never memorized the Act of Contrition. Not good. So that was the last of my unpleasant experiences with confession.

I think I can speak for Lauren, that if you should ever decide to make your confession to us, it will be a much more positive experience.

The result of those childhood confessions is that it wasn’t until I was an adult, with sins much bigger than not cleaning my room, that I came to appreciate the joy of confession and repentance.

The joy of confession and repentance sounds like an oxymoron – but it’s true. And this might come as surprise but the source of this joy can be found in today’s strange and gory lesson from Genesis.

We’re dropped in the middle of the story of Abraham, or Abram as he’s still called here. He has already received instruction from God to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and headed to Canaan. The passage we heard today is set right after Abraham has won a victory against Eastern kings and rescued his nephew Lot who was being held captive.

Despite his victory, Abraham is still concerned that he is childless – a major problem for the leader of a people. Yet, despite the hopelessness of his situation, God makes a bold promise to Abraham – God promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky – and Abraham takes God’s word for it; Abraham places his trust in God.

Then God makes a seemingly bizarre request for a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon. Abraham acquires these creatures and cuts the heifer, goat and ram in two.

Then as Abraham is sleeping the author of Genesis tells us, “a smoking pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…”

In turns out that this strange story reflects the way contracts or covenants were made in the ancient Middle East. Animals would be cut in two and the people making the contract or the covenant would pass between the two parts, symbolizing that they would end up like the animal if they violated the covenant. In fact, in Hebrew the expression is to “cut a covenant” and may be the source of the English expression to “cut a deal.”

So God makes a covenant, God cuts a deal, with Abraham and his descendants. But notice it’s only God who passes between the broken animals. Abraham is not required to pass between them. This is a profound image and statement.

In the covenant God is promising to be faithful to God’s people. God is willing to be held accountable for God’s end of deal. But since God knows that the people’s faith will falter and since God knows that the people will not hold up their end of the covenant, God spares them – spares us - the consequences of breaking the deal.

At first this covenant is understood as a promise of land, but over time the meaning of the covenant will deepen. The covenant – this deal cut by God - will be understood as God’s total faithfulness, God’s persistent reaching out to be in relationship, and God’s constant offer of forgiveness.

Through this weird and gory ancient ritual, God cuts an amazingly good deal with us –if we repent, if we turn back to God, then God stands ready to forgive.

Which is a very good thing, since throughout history and throughout our lives, over and over we turn away from God and are in need of forgiveness.

Which brings us to Jesus and today’s snippet from Luke’s Gospel. Whatever their motive, some Pharisees warn Jesus that his life is in danger.

Then Luke packs a lot into this little passage. Jesus looks ahead to the Passion and the Resurrection. He says, “on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus looks back to the history of Israel – over and over God has inspired prophets and over and over they were rejected, just as Jesus himself will be rejected.

But what jumps out at me is the way Jesus describes God’s feelings toward Jerusalem, toward God’s people: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

“As a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” What a beautiful image of God’s love and care for us.

No matter what sins we are carrying around with us, it’s not too late. God has cut a deal with us. No matter what we have done or not done, God is still like a hen gathering her brood under her wings; God is still ready to gather us back in with forgiveness. We can make our confession – alone in our room, or here in church, or with a priest.

We can make our confession because God has cut a deal with us - and we can know the joy of confession and repentance.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Transfiguration: An Overlook

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 14, 2010

Year C: The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
(2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2)
Luke 9:28-43a

The Transfiguration: An Overlook

I have a question - when you’re driving on a highway and you see a sign that says “Scenic Overlook Ahead” do you usually take the time to pull over and check it out?

I never do. Maybe it’s because I’m focused on getting to wherever it is I’m going or maybe having lived nearly my whole life in the city I’m just not that interested in scenic views. But whatever the reason I always just keep on driving right past the scenic overlook.

Sometimes, though, I’m not the one driving so it’s not my choice on whether we stop to look at the scenic overlook.

For example, on our J2A pilgrimage to California – about a year and a half ago now – I was happy to let Chris Wilde drive our large rental van up and down the coast of California. I remember one day we drove pretty far south on Highway 1 – the curvy road that hugs the Pacific Coast.

Near Big Sur we spotted a scenic overlook and Chris pulled over so we could take a look. It was nice to get out of the van to stretch my legs, but I remember thinking we’ve all seen the Pacific Ocean these last few days – you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it all, I thought.

Boy, was I wrong. It was spectacular looking down the steep drop to the ocean, watching the waves crashing onto the narrow strip of beach and slamming into the cliffs. We looked down at the pelicans as they looked down into the ocean on the hunt for something tasty. Once the pelicans spotted something worth the effort, they dove straight down into the ocean like missiles and then back up again with a presumably full gullet.

That scenic overlook gave a glimpse of the big picture – the truth that we live in a world glowing with God’s power. That overlook was one of those moments when I thought, it’s so good to be alive, to live in God’s beautiful world and to be able to do this work here and now.

I was glad that Chris had made the decision to pull over and check out that scenic overlook.

Sometimes we stumble upon scenic overlooks without seeking them out.

You all know about Overlook Hospital in Summit. I’ve been there a few times to visit parishioners – but I definitely don’t know it nearly as well as Morristown Hospital and I don’t think I ever consciously thought about its name – Overlook.

Anyway, a few months ago I went to visit someone at Overlook Hospital and I must have made a wrong turn and ended up in an unfamiliar hospital parking garage. It was nearly full so I had to park on the upper deck. By the time I parked and got out of the car I was very irritated at myself for having gotten lost and annoyed that I’d have to walk what looked to be about three miles to the hospital. I never bothered to look around at my surroundings.

After the visit I walked back the three miles to my car but by now I had calmed down. When I got to my car, I looked up and discovered this spectacular view – the city of Summit and the hospital called Overlook lived up to their names.

Down below I saw the New Jersey Transit trains snaking along the side of the cliff as they made their way in and out of Summit. And then I looked out to what from this height looked to be a vast plain stretching all the way to the skylines of Newark and New York.

I just stood there for a few minutes – standing atop what I later learned is the Second Watchung Mountain. Once again this overlook gave me a glimpse of the big picture – the truth that we live in a world glowing with God’s power. That overlook was one of those moments when I thought, it’s so good to be alive, to live in God’s beautiful world and to be able to do this work here and now.

Today we’ve come to the last Sunday after Epiphany – the season between Christmas and Lent when each week in church we retell the stories that manifest Jesus’ identity and power.

We began with Epiphany itself when the wise men recognize Jesus’ identity as king. Then we retold the story of Jesus’ baptism when he heard the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We heard two stories in which Jesus is revealed as a sign of God’s power and abundance – first, he turned water into fine wine at the wedding at Cana and second he told his fishermen friends to cast their nets on the other side, where they haul in the catch of their lives.

We imagined Jesus in his hometown synagogue telling the congregation that he was the fulfillment of prophecy.

For these past few weeks we’ve told epiphany story after epiphany story and on this last Sunday after Epiphany we tell two stories. These are Epiphany stories but they are also overlook stories.

First we tell the story of Moses coming down off the mountain with second set of tablets containing the law. In a powerful image, the author of the Book of Exodus tells us that since Moses had been so close to God, his face shined. His face shined so much that the Israelites were terrified and Moses covered his face with a veil.
Moses had the ultimate overlook experience on Mt. Sinai. In the most dramatic way imaginable, Moses saw the big picture - that we live a world glowing with God’s power. And Moses is marked by this encounter on the mountain.

The second story is the story of the Transfiguration. Once again it’s an overlook experience – Jesus takes Peter, John and James up on the mountain to pray. There the three disciples see Jesus transfigured and talking with Moses and Elijah. As if that weren’t enough for one overlook experience, they then hear the voice of God, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
esus had heard very similar words at his baptism – but that was private, just between God the Father and Jesus the Son. This time God speaks publicly - the three disciples hear this confirmation, this manifestation of Jesus’ identity and power.
The three disciples have a powerful overlook experience. They saw the big picture – that we live in a world glowing with God’s power. They recognized that God’s power was present in a unique way in God’s Son, Jesus.

So who can blame Peter for wanting to commemorate this event, to hold on to this overlook experience, by building shrines right there on the mountain.
Who can blame Peter, because the truth is that these overlook experiences are fleeting, we come down off the mountain and back to what seems like the humdrum, the routine, the everyday.

After Moses came down off the mountain, he and the Israelites still had a long journey, filled with wrong turns and betrayals, before reaching the Promised Land. And Moses himself won’t quite make it the journey’s end. Who could blame Moses if in the difficult days ahead he yearned for that time on the mountain with God – that overlook experience when he saw the big picture – when he experienced God’s glow.

And after Jesus and his disciples came down off the mountain, Luke tells us they are immediately thrust back into the messiness and the pain of life – a boy is sick and the disciples are powerless to help. Only Jesus has the power to heal him.
Who could blame Jesus and his disciples if they yearned to be back up on that mountain – back having that overlook experience seeing the big picture, seeing that the world is glowing with God’s power.

I think most, if not all, of us have had these overlook experiences. Even at low elevations there are moments in life when we glimpse the big picture – when we see the world is glowing with God’s power.

Maybe it was falling in love, or the birth of a child. Maybe it was reconnecting with an old friend, or experiencing the joy of helping someone in need. Maybe it was asking for and receiving forgiveness. Maybe it was hearing a beautiful piece of music or looking at a night sky filled with stars.

All of these can be overlook experiences – times when we glimpse the big picture. The challenge is how to hold on to these experiences when we return to the messiness and tedium of everyday life.

And that’s where Lent comes in. Starting on Wednesday, when ashes on our forehead remind us of our total dependence on God’s power, we are given the opportunity to slow down, to be mindful, to pay attention, to sacrifice, to take on some new ministry or service.

Lent gives us the opportunity to bring the epiphanies – the overlook experiences – into our daily lives. Maybe that happens by coming to one of the quiet and simple weekday services here. Maybe that happens by living more mindfully – taking the time to appreciate the ordinary overlook experiences of our lives – the food that we eat, our health, our friends and family. Maybe when we see the sign “Scenic Overlook Ahead” we pull over and check it out.

The Epiphany season is drawing to a close and Lent is about to begin. That means all sorts of changes here at church and maybe in our lives. But, the truth is, all of the church seasons are designed for one purpose – to help us see the overlook experience that is life itself. To help us see that we live in a world glowing with God’s power – and to recognize God’s power uniquely present in Jesus – King of Kings, Son of God, sign of God’s abundance, and fulfillment of prophecy.


Monday, February 01, 2010

Deep Roots

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison, NJ
The Messenger
February 2010

Curate’s Corner

Deep Roots

One of my personal goals since I arrived here has been to figure out why Grace Church is a thriving Christian community at a time when many other churches are in decline. Over the past two and a half years I’ve come up with many different explanations. In one of our first conversations, Lauren chalked it up to daily prayer and I believe that’s undoubtedly true. There is also the fortunate history of strong clergy and lay leadership as well as a clear understanding and support of lay ministry. The bottom line is that every day of the year vital ministry is being done by a wide range of parishioners.

Recently I recognized another source of our strength when I had the eye-opening experience of reading a new book, The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. The book’s title might lead you to think that it tells some DaVinci Code-inspired story of lost gospels or secrets about Jesus and his first followers. Instead, Jenkins tells the true and nearly-forgotten story of Christianity in Asia and North Africa, making the case that this was the thriving center of our faith during the first thousand years of its history.

The energetic and confident Middle Eastern churches sent out missionaries to India, Tibet, China and beyond. For many centuries monasteries in places such as Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia were great centers of spirituality and learning. For the proud and faithful Christians in this part of the world it must have seemed like their sophisticated and rich churches, in some cases founded by Jesus’ first disciples, would last forever.

The sad truth is that for a variety of reasons today Christianity is almost extinct in the Middle East and North Africa. Jenkins devotes a good bit of space to reflecting on why some churches die and others live on, even in the face of long-term persecution. He suggests that some churches die because they become too closely associated with one demographic group or geographic area. On the other hand, Jenkins claims that successful churches “reach broadly across sections of society and make their religion part of the ordinary lived reality of a diverse range of communities.”

In other words, successful churches plant deep roots in their communities.

This is exactly what happens here at Grace Church! It doesn’t take much effort to see the deep roots of our church in many communities. Although we don’t make these connections in an effort to increase our average Sunday attendance, the truth is people join our church because they learn about our many activities or because they are invited by parishioners who are excited to share the good things that are happening here.

Many of our ministries help to deepen our roots in many communities. We have a longstanding connection to the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown, sending volunteers every other month to prepare a nutritious and delicious lunch while also donating thousands of dollars through our annual “Souper Bowl” fundraiser. We also have a deep connection to St. John’s Church in Dover, the co-sponsoring congregation of the Recycling Ministry. For the past two years, we have sent people and resources to support St. John’s vacation bible school, which provides a summer camp-like service to people in need. Others of us are closely involved with the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ringwood and Apostles House in Newark. Closer to home, many people have benefited from services provided by the Grace Counseling Center. In addition, recently we have been renewing our connection to Project Community Pride, a remarkable family-centered counseling agency supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Grace Community Music plays an invaluable role in deepening our roots in the community. Many people have first entered Grace Church to hear a Harmonium concert or a Lenten organ recital or to be entertained by the Halloween Concert. Plus, we have long-term relationships with a host of local musicians and groups. Again, we don’t offer these musical programs to grow our church, but inevitably these events and relationships help us become, in the words of Philip Jenkins, “part of the ordinary lived reality” of people in our community. As one woman who regularly attends our musical events said to me at Bottle Hill Day, “I’m Jewish, but if I were Christian I’d go to Grace Church!”

Finally, many individual parishioners work to deepen our roots in the community. Each week I page through the Madison Eagle looking for stories and photos featuring Grace Church parishioners. Without exception, every week there is always at least one article and picture to cut out and proudly put up on the bulletin board. At our First Friday in May, we are planning to feature parishioners who volunteer outside of church. This has created a wonderful problem; in response to my inquiry in Grace Notes so many people have identified themselves as volunteers that we may have a panel of 40 or more people!

As we begin another year we can – and should – be thankful for Grace Church, our thriving Christian community. We can also give thanks for our deep roots in our communities and continue to look for ways we can be “part of the ordinary lived reality” for our neighbors.