Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Bunch of Ragamuffins

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 20, 2010

Year C, Proper 7: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalm 42
(Galatians 3:23-29)
Luke 8:26-39

A Bunch of Ragamuffins

When I was growing up my father hated his job. Part of the reason he went to work every day was to afford to send my sister and me to our local Catholic parochial school, Our Lady of Mercy. And like Catholic schoolchildren then and now, we wore uniforms. For the girls it was a plaid jumper and for the boys it was white dress shirt, green clip-on tie and gray pants. And like Catholic schoolchildren then and now, we sometimes wore the uniform in ways that were less than neat and dignified.

For most of my time in grammar school the principal was a nun who was very kind but who from time to time would kind of lose it and yell at the whole school over the PA system. I remember one time very vividly. Apparently she had seen – or she had gotten reports about – how some of us were abusing the uniform.

So, this day she got on the PA and really let us have it – yelling about the boys with their un-tucked shirts and the girls with their too-short skirts. I’m sure the teachers were irritated to have classes interrupted, maybe amused by the spectacle, and also maybe concerned that this time sister was going to blow a gasket.
There’s one phrase from sister’s tirade that I’ll never forget. From down in the main office she shouted into the microphone, “You look like a bunch of ragamuffins!”
“You look like a bunch of ragamuffins!”

Ragamuffins? I’m sure some of us snickered at that funny word. I had no idea what a ragamuffin was – and probably my classmates didn’t either. Of course, sister had given us enough context to know that ragamuffins are a mess. In case, like me, you don’t know what a ragamuffin is, here’s the dictionary definition: a dirty, shabbily-clothed child – an urchin.

I don’t think I thought about or heard the word “ragamuffin” for the next thirty-plus years, until a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a book called The Ragamuffin Gospel by a former Roman Catholic priest named Brennan Manning. Seeing the book’s title hurled me back to the principal’s long-ago tirade and piqued my interest.
Manning makes two main points in his book. First, we’re all spiritual ragamuffins – we’re all a mess – one way or another we’re all, as he says, “bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out.”

Here are some of his definitions of ragamuffins:

“The sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.”

“The wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud” to accept help.

“The poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.”

“The bent and the bruised who feel their lives are a grave disappointment…”

“The smart people who know they are stupid…”

I think these days more than usual we’re really feeling bedraggled, beat up and burnt-out. Most if not all of us carry our own personal regrets and anxieties – our own sense of failure or impending doom.

And as a society, we’re a mess. We’re told the economy is improving, but a jobless recovery seems like no recovery at all. We lash out - desperately looking for who is to blame – Wall Street, the banks, Congress, the president, the former president, the teachers union, the undocumented immigrant…the list goes on.

We’re still feeding our best and bravest to Iraq and Afghanistan – wars that have gone on so long now that we can barely stand to hear about one more roadside bomb, one more top-ranking terrorist killed by an unmanned drone, one more suicide bomber at a crowded marketplace.

And of course, each week the estimate rises ever higher of just how much oil has actually spewed and continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. We can only take so much of this. Before long we’ll grow numb to the images of oil-soaked pelicans, tar balls staining gorgeous beaches, and heartbroken people mourning a lost way of life.

Yes, more than ever, Brennan Manning is right – individually and as a society - we’re bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out. We’re a bunch of ragamuffins.

But, in his book Manning makes a second point – very basic Christianity, yet all too easy for us to forget. He writes that God “has a single relentless stance toward us.” God “loves us.” God “is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods – the gods of human manufacturing – despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do. But of course, this is almost too incredible for us to accept.”

We’re all bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out. We’re all sinners living in a sinful world. Yet, the good news is that God reaches out to us, no matter how much of a mess, how much of a ragamuffin we are.

Today’s lessons offer two powerful illustrations of God reaching out to the bedraggled, the beat-up and the burnt-out.

The man we met in today’s gospel is maybe the most extreme ragamuffin imaginable. He’s probably a gentile, so from the Jewish perspective that’s one big strike against him. He’s possessed by an army of demons – a Roman legion had about 5000 troops. He hasn’t worn clothes for a long time and lives in the tombs. The demons were so powerful that even guards and chains and shackles could not subdue him.

The point of this story is that even this extreme case of a man bedraggled, beaten-up and burned-out was not beyond the loving power of God working through Jesus. And in case you’re wondering about the pigs. Their mass suicide is a vivid symbol of the purification of non-Jewish lands – that through Jesus we discover that the God of Israel is at work everywhere, reaching out to everyone.

I’d like to spend a little more time on the story of the Prophet Elijah’s quiet encounter with God. For today’s story to make sense we have to back up just a little. Elijah lived during a time when the Israelites were hedging their bets – they continued to worship their God but also worshipped other gods, especially Baal, an important Canaanite god associated with thunderstorms. Israel was ruled by Ahab, a great military leader who was married to the infamous Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal.

The author of the Book of Kings tells us that during a terrible drought Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest in which both sides would cut up a bull and call upon their god to consume the bull with fire – probably thanks to lightning.

We’re told the prophets of Baal dance around, cut themselves, do everything they can think of. Elijah taunts them, suggesting that maybe Baal is meditating or asleep. Despite the best attempts of the prophets, Baal was silent. We’re told there was “No voice, no answer, no response.”

Elijah then called upon the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and we’re told “the fire of the Lord fell” – and the drought came to an end. Elijah then told the Israelites to grab the prophets of Baal - and he killed them all.

A powerful and bloody scene. Today we picked up with Jezebel hearing about what had happened to her prophets and sending a threatening message to Elijah. And Elijah – who had seen first hand the power of God – Elijah was frightened and despairing. Who knows, maybe he had some doubts that God had really wanted him to kill those 450 prophets of Baal.

One commentary I read actually referred to Elijah here as a burnt-out prophet. He’s probably bedraggled and apparently is about to be beat-up and worse. Elijah is a spiritual ragamuffin.

So, Elijah went on his own forty day exodus ending up at Mount Horeb, better known as Mount Sinai. Here, where God had appeared to Moses, Elijah says, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” In the midst of his fear and despair, the ragamuffin Elijah turns to God, opens himself to God.

And God doesn’t appear in the violent wind or the earthquake or the fire. Instead, God speaks in the “sheer silence.” The burned-out prophet is reassured of God’s presence and sent back on his mission, to get on with the rest of his life, knowing that God is with him always.

The story of Jesus casting out the legion of demons from that poor man tells us that no one – no matter who they are or no matter what they’ve done is beyond the power and love and healing of God. This is something important for us to remember when we feel broken, un-healable, and unforgivable. It’s also something important to remember when we judge certain other people as broken, un-healable and unforgivable.

But, for many of us, the story of Elijah may be timelier these days. Like Elijah, many of us have seen God’s power and have received God’s blessing. Think of all we’ve been given! Yet, in tough times we can be consumed by regret about the past, fear of the future, and the need for someone to blame.

In the midst of this mess the story of Elijah reminds us that God is reaching out to us, probably not in the winds, earthquakes and fires, but in the sheer silence.

Today many of us are bedraggled, beaten-up and burned-out. We’re spiritual ragamuffins. More than ever, like Elijah, we need to take some time – to take our own private exodus. More than ever we need to turn off the TV and radio, log off from facebook, put the phone on silent, and just be quiet - listening for the voice of God in the sheer silence.

We’re all a bunch of ragamuffins now, needing the grace and healing that only God can give.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

From Death Into Life

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 6, 2010

Year C, Proper 5: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 146
(Galatians 1:11-24)
Luke 7:11-17

From Death into Life

What is God really like?

Last Sunday, Lauren and I and preachers all across the Church were faced with the daunting challenge of preaching a sermon on a doctrine of the church – preaching on the Trinity – the term we use for our very limited understanding of God’s interior life. God reveals God’s self to be three Persons in one God - a perfect relationship of love. We preachers prove every year that it’s impossible to explain how God can be both one and three. Ultimately, in this life anyway, the Trinity will always remain a profound and inexhaustible mystery. In that deepest sense, for now anyway, we cannot know what God is really like.

But, because God wants to be in relationship with us, because over and over God reaches out to us, we can give at least a partial answer.
What is God really like? Well, to answer that we can look to the Bible – the book that’s a collection of many books, inspired by God, created and collected over many centuries – the book that tells a long story of God at work in the world, God revealing God’s self to human beings.

What is God really like? Well, as Christians, of course, to answer that first and foremost we look to Jesus – the person in whom God reveals God’s self in a unique way to the world. In Jesus, God says this is what I’m really like.

What is God really like? Well, as Christians to answer that we also look to two-thousand years of Christian history – the story of how despite often horrifying human sinfulness, God has been – and continues to be - at work through people who have given away their lives sharing the Good News of Jesus, standing up to injustice, and selflessly serving the weakest and the poorest among us.

What is God really like? Today’s lessons – the very similar stories of Elijah and Jesus both raising a widow’s son from the dead – give us an important answer. We don’t know everything about God, but we do know that over and over God offers to lead us from death into life.

I’m reminded of a hymn that’s not in our Episcopal hymnal, but was and maybe still is popular in the Roman Catholic Church. The refrain is:

“Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”

That’s what God is like. In this life we can’t know God completely, but the truth is God has revealed all that we need to know. What is God really like? Over and over God offers to lead us – to shepherd us - from death into life.

Today we heard a story about the prophet Elijah, who lived in the first half of the 9th Century B.C. What we know about him comes from the book of Kings, written several centuries later. Like all prophets, Elijah’s main task was convincing the Israelites to put their trust, their faith, in God.

In each of the stories about Elijah we see Elijah being open to God’s call and then God’s power is made manifest in him.

In the story we heard today, God sends Elijah to a widow living in Zarephath, a port city in Phoenicia – what would be today Lebanon. From the start, the gloom of death hangs over the scene. Elijah encounters the woman gathering sticks and asks her for water. Without a word, she begins to accommodate his request, but then he asks her for a morsel of bread. And then it’s as if all of her sorrows and despair come pouring out of her. She says to Elijah,

“As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for my son, that we may eat it and die.”

Yet, although she seems consumed by despair and impending death, she is also open to God’s power. Notice that she acknowledges God’s existence, saying, “As the Lord your God lives…” And then, rather than telling this stranger to get lost, she does what he says, making “a little cake” for Elijah.
The author of the Book of Kings tells us, “She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.”

Because this poor woman is open just a little, she experiences God’s presence, power and abundance. She experiences what God is really like.

God shepherded her, beyond her wants, beyond her fears, from death into life.

But, then there’s a twist to the story. The gloom of death still hasn’t lifted.

The woman’s son dies suddenly and, interestingly, she seems to blame both herself and Elijah for this calamity. She says, “What have you against me, O man of god? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

“You have come to bring my sin to remembrance.” It seems this woman may be carrying around heavy guilt – some recognition of her own sinfulness. And living with our sin and feeling unforgiven is a kind of death, too, isn’t it?

But, regardless of our sins, God always offers to shepherd us, to lead us from death to life.

It may be hard for us to understand or even accept God’s offer of life. Look, even Elijah seems to misunderstand what God is really like. Elijah cries out, “O Lord, my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?”

Well, no, of course, not. By reviving the son, in a literal and dramatic way God reveals what God is really like, that God always offers to lead us from death into life.

God shepherded the woman, her son, and even Elijah, God shepherded them all beyond their wants, beyond their fears, from death into life.

It’s a powerful story that reveals a lot about what God is really like. And the evangelist Luke obviously draws upon the story of Elijah resuscitating the boy in his account of Jesus raising the widow’s only son.

Luke of course is eager to make the point that God’s power flows through Jesus just as it flowed through Elijah. After the miracle, Luke quotes the people as saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!”

But, Luke knew, and the first readers of the Gospel knew, and we know, that, yes, Jesus is a prophet but Jesus is much more than a prophet. In Jesus we see what God is really like. Jesus is the ultimate example of God reaching out to us, making God’s self known to us. And Christ’s Resurrection is the ultimate sign and promise that, even when all hope seems to be lost, God always offers to lead us, to shepherd us, from death into life.

For two thousand years, countless Christian women and men have allowed God to work through them – sharing God’s offer to lead us from death into life. And that work continues all around us even now.

On the Men’s Mission event a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to spend time with Christians who are doing God’s work of shepherding people from death into life.

On the first day I went to the Seamen’s Church Institute at Port Newark and spent the day trailing one of the port chaplains, my good friend Megan Sanders, as she went about her work.

The port is a fascinating, dangerous and largely hidden world of enormous equipment, diesel exhaust and tight security. Many of the seafarers sign contracts that take them away from home for many months. For a variety of reasons, many are not allowed off their ships when they finally reach port after many weeks at sea. It’s not much of a life. In fact, it’s a kind of death.

But, we followed Megan around as she spread God’s love to these nearly invisible people – doing seemingly small things - offering much-wanted phone cards, offering rides to the Jersey Gardens mall, asking about their lives, promising prayers.

One of the crewmembers said that lots of people come on the ships but the chaplains are the only ones who care about them.

In small but profound ways, that day at the port we saw what God is really like - shepherding those seafarers – and us – beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

On the second day of our mission event, I went out to Hope, NJ, to a place called Haven of Hope for Kids. I knew Grace Church gives them outreach money but didn’t know much about this organization that was co-founded by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a small congregation in Hope. Currently Haven of Hope offers one cottage as “a retreat for families caring for a child with a life-threatening illness.” Some of you know first-hand the horror of that experience – how the illness of a child can be a kind of death.

At Haven of Hope, families can spend most or all of their time in and around the pleasant cottage, which is just behind the church. Or they can take advantage of some of the other attractions in that beautiful part of our state or over in Pennsylvania.

Now, Haven of Hope is expanding its ministry into a second cottage – and our group of Grace Church men transformed this second cottage from a drab gray into a bright, welcoming, hopeful yellow. Our two-day painting effort will make a small contribution to Haven of Hope’s mission of giving these families “a renewed sense of mutual support, courage, confidence, joy and optimism.”

In small but profound ways at Haven of Hope we saw what God is really like – shepherding frightened families – and us – beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

So, what is God really like? Because God wants to be in relationship with us, because over and over God reaches out to us, we can give at least a partial answer.

We look to the Bible, we look to Jesus, and we look to God working through people in history and all around us, right here today. And when we look we discover that over and over, even when all seems to be lost, God always offers to shepherd us, to lead us, beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Attention and the Focused Life

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
June-July 2010
Curate’s Corner

Attention and the Focused Life

If we are being honest, most preachers would admit that most if not all of our sermons are on some level directed to ourselves. I was reminded of that truth a couple of months ago during the Men’s Retreat. Geoff Brooks noted that one theme that appears often in my sermons is the call to pay attention – to keep our eyes and ears open to how God is at work in our lives. Ironically – and tellingly – I don’t remember the context of Geoff’s comment, but I was pleased that he recognized my belief in the importance of mindfulness. Truthfully, I preach regularly about paying attention because I think it’s important and because I tend to do such a bad job of it myself.

Like most of us, especially when tired, I regularly lose my perspective and get wrapped up in my own issues – anxieties as well as hopes. Like most of us, I miss how God is active in this present moment and instead look back regretfully or nostalgically to the past or ahead nervously or hopefully to the future. That was one reason why back in April, my wife Sue encouraged me to take a few days off, get away, take a breather and pay attention to how God is at work right now in my life.

With Lauren’s kind agreement, I spent five days in one of my favorite places, San Francisco, on sort of a vaca-retreat. Although I spent some time catching up with good friends, mostly I was alone with my thoughts and prayers as I walked up and down the wonderfully steep hills of that beautiful city. After just a day or two my friends said they could see the rest and refreshment in my face.

While I was there I read an intriguing book called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by a behavioral science writer named Winifred Gallagher. I had never heard of the book or author before, but its title and subject had caught my eye in a bookstore so I bought it and tossed it into my bag for the trip.

While I have approached paying attention and mindfulness from a religious angle, Gallagher’s central claim is purely secular, blatantly obvious and yet usually ignored: “Your life is the creation of what you focus on – and what you don’t.” Gallagher arrived at that profoundly simple statement after receiving a very bleak cancer diagnosis. She writes that while facing this potentially fatal illness, she resolved to focus on “things that matter most and make me feel best: big ones like my family and friends, spiritual life, and work, and smaller things like movies, walks, and a 6:30pm martini.”

This resolve to control her focus apparently worked, helping to make the seemingly unbearable bearable. Gallagher writes, “Even in very difficult situations, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even your own values, thoughts and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a ‘nice thing to do’ but a proven way to expand your view of reality and lift your spirits, thus improving your ability to cope.” Based on her powerful personal experience and many interviews with scientists and psychologists, Gallagher concludes, “You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing.”

Naturally, it would be much better if we paid attention and practiced mindfulness in our everyday lives rather than in the midst of a personal crisis. Our relationships are a good place to start. Gallagher writes, “Attention, from the Latin for ‘reach toward,’ is the most basic ingredient in any relationship, from a casual friendship to a lifelong marriage. Giving and receiving the undivided sort, however briefly, is the least that one person can do for another and sometimes the most.” How often do we really pay attention to other people – our co-workers, fellow parishioners at coffee hour, our friends, our relatives, our spouses? How would our lives be different if we developed the discipline of mindfulness, of living in this moment, of taking in and appreciating the gifts that we are receiving right now from and through the people in our lives?

To circle back to our lives as Christians, how can we ever hope to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves, if we are unwilling to pay attention to God and to the people around us? In her book, Gallagher offers this quote from the poet W.H. Auden, “To pray is to pay attention, or shall we say, to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself.”

Since we’re all works in progress, no doubt we’ll keep stumbling at paying attention to God at work in our lives and in the world around us. In a world that seems to demand relentless multitasking, we’ll still struggle to focus on what’s most important. So, I’m sure I’ll keep preaching to myself and to you about the importance of mindfulness. But, I think from now on I’ll try a little harder to practice what I preach!