Saturday, July 31, 2010

Discernment on the Uneven Road

Discernment on the Uneven Road

A Message to the People of Grace Church in Madison, NJ

July 2010

Throughout the ordination process I was asked over and over why exactly I wanted to be – or felt called to be – a priest. For me, the answer was, and continues to be, because I can’t think of a more exciting and fulfilling way to spend my life than building and leading a Christian community. My dream has been to minister in a place where we walk together on the uneven road of life, day after day, year after year. While I was in seminary and imagined the future, I saw myself settling in at a small urban parish and throwing myself into building a community that would be a sign of God’s loving presence both for the congregation and for the neighborhood.

As a lifelong city-dweller, of course I knew for sure that I would be working in an urban church. Yet, apparently God had other, suburban, ideas and fortunately I was just barely open enough to the gift God had in mind for me. It is difficult to find adequate words to capture how I am feeling as my three years at Grace Church draw to a close. In an unexpected place, God has fulfilled my dream of ministering in a church where we have walked together on the uneven road of life: celebrating new life, facing fears, mourning loss, and through it all, praying and singing together. Here in Madison, I have had the joyous privilege of helping to build with you a community that in so many ways truly is a sign of God’s loving presence. Many of you remember that I was ordained a priest at Grace Church in December, 2007. The truth is, however, that my entire time with you has felt like ordination – God and the community blessing me with the ever-deepening gift of priesthood.

From our arrival at Grace, Sue and I have known that, like all the previous curates and their spouses, we were only passing through. We stored our moving boxes in the garage at Surrey Lane and never quite forgot that they were there waiting to be filled again and brought with us to a yet unknown destination. When I imagined my next step, I knew for sure that I would be at some other church in the Diocese of Newark or maybe one of the surrounding dioceses. After all, nearly all of our family and friends live around here.

Apparently some people never learn. When I first heard about the position as chaplain at the University of Florida and rector of St. Michael’s in Gainesville, I initially rejected it out of hand. Moving to Florida was out of the question. But, then I heard this nagging, annoying little voice in my head reminding me of all of my sermons in which I’ve urged all of us to be open – even just a little - to the power of God. So, a little ashamed of my hypocrisy, I opened myself again to the possibility of the unknown and unexpected.

I was very surprised by what I found in Florida. I felt myself clicking with the bishop and other members of the diocesan staff. When I visited the Chapel of the Incarnation and the rest of the campus ministry complex, I was excited by what already exists there and what might be possible in the future. Gradually, the thought of ministering to students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida seemed to fit with my own background and interests. The other part of my job, serving as rector of St. Michael’s, presents an exciting challenge. This church was broken by schism a couple of years ago when a previous rector left with most of the congregation to set up a new Anglican church in Gainesville. As a stop-gap measure the previous chaplain at UF took charge of St. Michael’s. Sure enough, under her leadership, the church began to grow. My task is to continue that good work, to continue the healing and rebuilding that is already underway.

I quickly realized that this chaplain/rector position offers a unique and challenging opportunity. Sue made it clear she was on board with whatever decision I made. But, taking the position in Florida was an agonizing decision because it means moving away from our family and friends and leaving all of you at Grace Church. It was a spiritual exercise that finally convinced me to take the leap and accept this new challenge. Many of you know my admiration for Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th Century saint who founded the Society of Jesus and was a master of discernment. When faced with a difficult decision, Ignatius suggested imagining ourselves at the point of death and asking what choice we should have made.

When I imagined that scene, I realized that despite the very high cost, I would regret not taking this chance. I knew I would regret not being open to this unexpected opportunity. So, ready or not, here we go. In just a couple of weeks Sue and I will take our next steps on the uneven road of life, venturing into an unknown (and awfully humid) new life. Thanks to our summer study series St. Paul has been on my mind lately. His words to the church in Philippi capture my feelings for you, the church in Madison:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Everyday Mystics

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 18, 2010

Year C, Proper 11: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
(Colossians 1:15-28)
Luke 10:38-42

Everyday Mystics

I haven’t been around much the past couple of weeks, so unfortunately I missed the first few sessions of “Eclipsing Empire,” our Thursday evening summer study series about St. Paul.

But, I was glad to be there this past Thursday when the group had a very interesting discussion about mysticism. Now, it’s clear that Paul himself was a mystic. On the road to Damascus, he had a powerful mystical experience of the resurrected Christ – a powerful mystical experience that transformed Paul from a Pharisee persecuting the followers of Jesus into a man who gave away his life, traveling around the Mediterranean world telling as many people as he could the Good News of Jesus Christ.

When most of us think of mysticism and mystics – we think of very rare experiences that happen to very unusual people: Paul encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus; Francis of Assisi receiving the wounds of the crucified Jesus; We think of mystics as people wearing strange clothes, or living in a cave or on top of a mountain or in a monastery.

But, the scholars in the “Eclipsing Empire” program offered a more general definition of mysticism and a broad expectation of who can be a mystic.

They defined mysticism as an experience of the sacred, an experience of union with God. They also suggested that Paul believed it’s possible – in fact, expected - for all Christians to be mystics, it’s possible for all of us to have encounters with the sacred, it’s possible for all of us to experience union with God.

I happen to believe that’s true.

It sounds odd, but mysticism can be an everyday experience. The truth is we don’t have to go into a cave or climb a mountain or even make a pilgrimage to be mystics, to experience the sacred, to experience union with God. It can and does happen right here, every day, I bet, right here in Madison, and Florham Park, and, yes, even Chatham.

It happens when we realize how good it is to be alive. It can happen when we enjoy a meal with family or friends. It can happen on a hot summer day when we treat ourselves to a cold, creamy chocolate milkshake. It can happen when we pick up the phone and call an old friend, or when we say we’re sorry to someone we’ve hurt, or when we offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt us. It can happen when we hold the hand of one we love or pet our dog or cat. We can have a mystical experience when we pray for a person in need or visit someone who is sick or lonely.

This church is built for mystical experiences. When we gather here in this beautiful place and listen to the Word of God and sing hymns and reach out in peace to our brothers and sisters and most of all when we offer up our hands and hearts to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we can have an experience of the sacred, an experience of union with God.

We can be everyday mystics.

The heart of Christianity is that in Jesus we have a profound and personal and unique encounter with God. When we look at Jesus, when we listen to Jesus, we see and we hear what God is really like. Jesus is the ultimate mystical experience!

Sounds great, right? So, how come we don’t feel like everyday mystics? Why is it that most of us, most of the time, in our everyday lives, don’t remember how good it is to be alive, we don’t experience the sacred, we don’t experience a sense of union with God? Why is it that so often church seems like just part of the routine, something we’re supposed to do before we get on with the rest of the weekend? Why don’t we feel like everyday mystics?

Well, the answer is a little different for each of us. But, it boils down to this simple, irrefutable fact: we have a lot on our minds. We’re distracted.

Some of us are wondering how long today’s sermon will be. Some of us are worried about our health or the health of someone we care about. Some of us are worried about our jobs, about being able to pay the bills, about being able to support our families, about being able to leave something behind for our children or grandchildren. Some of us are lonely or afraid of being alone. Some of us deeply miss those who have died. Some of us are disappointed by our lives. Some of us are bored. Some of us watch TV news or read the paper and get so depressed and anxious. Some of us get so mad at the Democrats just like some of us get so mad at the Republicans. And more of us are mad at the whole bunch.

We have a lot on our minds. We’re distracted. Some of us are afraid we won’t keep up with the people on our street – that our cars, our lawns, our houses, our haircuts, just won’t be up to snuff. Some of us are thinking about what we need to buy at the supermarket. Some of us keep forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning. Some of us have to figure out how to get the kids to camp, to sports practice, to piano and dance lessons – sometimes all at the same time while driving one minivan. Some of us have regrets about the past – choices and mistakes that still haunt us. Some of us wonder if our children and grandchildren are doomed to grow up in a poorer and meaner and scarier country than we did.

And some of us even have a house full of guests and our sister has left us to do all the cleaning and the cooking and the serving.

In just a handful of verses, Luke gives us the rich story of the two sisters Mary and Martha. Martha, busy with her tasks, isn’t doing anything wrong. Just like when we think about all that we have to think about, we’re not doing anything wrong.
But, when we’re distracted by our many tasks, when our minds go over and over all the stuff we worry about, we shut ourselves off to the mystical experiences that are possible for us. Martha and we miss out on experiences of the sacred; we miss out on union with God.

Mary, though, she’s an everyday mystic, she’s focused on what’s most important, sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on every word. Jesus is right here! And since Jesus is the ultimate mystical experience, this is no time to be doing the dishes! Jesus is right here! For now, it’s time to set aside our tasks and worries. It’s time to be quiet and listen. It’s time to be a mystic.

Sounds great, right? But then what? Do we just hold on to our mystical experiences, our encounters with the sacred? Many of us dismiss mysticism because we think it has nothing to do with the real world. Yet, throughout Jewish and Christian tradition when mystics experience the sacred and experience union with God, they are inspired to speak out against injustice and work to build the kingdom of God right here in the soil and stone of the earth. Thanks to their experiences of the holy, mystics see what’s truly possible. Mystics see the way God wants the world to be.

The Prophet Amos is a perfect example of the connection between mysticism and social justice. Amos lived in the first half of the 8th Century BC, a time when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the North and Judah in the South. In the northern kingdom this was a time of great prosperity Рbut it was a prosperity enjoyed only by a slim percentage of people at the top of society. There was great economic inequality Рthe clich̩ was true - the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.

Amos was from the southern kingdom, Judah. We’re told he was an ordinary person, a farmer and a herder. Amos was an ordinary person but he was also a mystic. He experienced the sacred, experienced union with God. And those mystical experiences led him to condemn the great economic inequality in Israel. Amos’s mystical experiences inspired him to warn Israel about the dangers of worshipping God without also showing compassion and without offering justice to the poor and the suffering.

Throughout the Book of Amos there are warnings that the Day of the Lord was coming. Elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture the Day of the Lord was seen as the time when Israel’s enemies would be punished. But, Amos the mystic has a different idea. He warns that in the Day of the Lord, Israel will also be punished with the other nations of the world for how it has mistreated the poor and the suffering.

In the passage we heard today, Amos warns Israel that time is running out – the summer fruit has already been harvested and placed in the basket. Through Amos, God warns of the worst punishment of all – the living hell of being separated from the presence of God.

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”

This should be a sobering prophecy for all of us who live in such great prosperity while most of the world groans in poverty and despair.

As, Christians, though, we know that God has not hidden from us. Just the opposite! In Jesus we have a profound and personal and unique encounter with God. When we look at Jesus, when we listen to Jesus, we see and hear what God is really like. Jesus is the ultimate mystical experience!

And so it’s possible for us – right here and now – to be everyday mystics. Mysticism isn’t about wearing strange clothes or spending years in a cave, or on a mountain or in a monastery. Mysticism is about being like Mary, open to the God who is always reaching out to us. Mysticism is about being open to the God who is always seeking to cut through Martha’s and our worries and distractions, inviting us to realize how good it is to be alive, to experience the sacred, and to unite with God.

And then we mystics are called to be like Amos – to demand justice and compassion, to practice justice and compassion, to build the kingdom of God here in Madison, here in America, here on earth.


Sunday, July 04, 2010

American Scripture

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 4, 2010

Year C, Proper 9: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
(Galatians 6:1-16)
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

American Scripture

Of course, today we’re celebrating the birth of our country – a birth that was announced by a remarkably powerful and inspiring document, the Declaration of Independence. But, on the same day that we celebrate our independence from one kingdom, we just heard Luke’s story of Jesus sending out the seventy to proclaim the Good News that “the kingdom of God has come near.” And, although we might not want to hear it, the implication is that Jesus is calling us to be disciples, sending us out to proclaim that same good news: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

So, we’ve got two seemingly contrary things going on today. Today we are celebrating our independence. At the same time, we are called to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Let’s start with independence. In my previous life as a high school history teacher, I loved teaching about Colonial America and the War for Independence. Those early years of our nation’s history tell a remarkable story of people leaving home, hoping for a better life with land of their own and the freedom to worship God in their own way.

Those early years of our nation’s history also tell a tragic story - marred by the near-annihilation of the Native Americans and the importation of African slaves – the twin original sins of American history.

Today, of course, we focus on a decision by leaders of the thirteen thinly-populated English colonies stretching from New Hampshire to Georgia. In the heat of a Philadelphia summer, those brave leaders made the formal decision to declare independence from the mightiest country in the world, knowing that in the probable event of failure, they would be executed for treason.

In the midst of that hot summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson led the team that crafted the Declaration of Independence – what at least one scholar calls “American Scripture”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

Jefferson and many of his colleagues were only nominally Christian. Instead they subscribed to deism – the idea that God, like a clock-maker, created the universe, set it in motion, and now has nothing more to do with it. In private, Jefferson spent a good bit of time pouring over the New Testament, cutting out anything that seemed implausible or supernatural, reducing Jesus to simply a noble teacher of ethics. So, in the declaration, America’s founding document, there are only glancing references to God, using the generic terms “nature’s God” or “Creator”.

Nevertheless, with this powerful piece of American scripture, Jefferson declared and summarized what America values the most. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have shaped us as a people who strongly value our personal freedom to live our lives how we want to live them – with as little interference from the government, or anybody else, as possible. We sure hate paying taxes and try to pay as little as we can legally get away with. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a tirade against George III. We’ve been highly suspicious of authority ever since. No kings for us.

Like everything created by human beings, the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, of this American scripture, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we are fortunate to live in a country providing us with great freedom and potential. I was very moved reading the obituary of Robert Byrd – born into deep poverty in one of our poorest states, infected by the worst prejudices of his time and place, and yet able to rise above and beyond all of that, serving in the Senate for more than half a century, and now mourned by both Democrats and Republicans. Whatever we might think of his politics, he made great use of his life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On the other hand, we can misuse our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. We happily enjoy our barbeques and fireworks not giving a thought to our best and bravest fighting wars in faraway lands and carrying the heavy burden of protecting us. Our focus on individual wealth often leads us to neglect the common good. Our roads and bridges are crumbling and the quality of our schools is wildly uneven. Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grows ever wider and so many are falling out of the middle class. Our mistrust of authority can be so great that leaders are unable to make difficult decisions or to accomplish necessary tasks.

So, yes, today we celebrate our independence, recognizing, though, that we both use and misuse our blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Which brings us to the kingdom of God. In today’s gospel we pick up right where we left off last week in the Gospel of Luke. In what Lauren called in her sermon “the cost of discipleship” Jesus calls for total commitment from his followers. Jesus says to one follower with family responsibilities, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” To another hesitating follower Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of god.”

Surprisingly, according to Luke, at least seventy people were willing to pay the high cost of discipleship and were sent out by Jesus to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. The number seventy echoes the story of Moses appointing the seventy elders to continue his work. Traditionally Jews believed there were seventy nations in the world – so that might be another reason for this specific number. Anyway, the first readers and hearers of the gospel would have picked up on this important symbolic number.

Jesus warns the seventy they have a dangerous and difficult mission. Jesus says he is sending them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” It’s a dangerous world out there, so they shouldn’t greet anyone on the road. They’ll have no equipment – no purse, no bag, no sandals – only their faith, their trust in God. Sometimes people will welcome them warmly and sometimes not so much.

In any event they are to proclaim, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

And here’s where we run into trouble. What exactly does that mean, “the kingdom of God has come near”?

The expression is all over the gospels, though Matthew calls it the “kingdom of heaven” probably to avoid using God’s name. It’s a central part of Jesus’ message, yet for a long time the church and scholars have puzzled over what the kingdom of God is. Or, more to the point, they’ve puzzled over when the kingdom of God is.

Some say that Jesus and the Gospel writers were thinking of the end of time, the Second Coming of Jesus, when all of creation will be transformed into the kingdom of God.

Others say, no, Jesus and the gospel writers saw the kingdom of God as something that was happening now – something that was beginning with Jesus’ own life and ministry and was to continue with the seventy and all the other followers of Jesus right down through time to us today.

I think the answer is probably both – the kingdom of God is already happening and not yet here. As the seventy were instructed to say, “the kingdom of God has drawn near.” And our job is to build the kingdom of God right here, right now – to be a sign that the kingdom of God has drawn near.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives us a clear vision of what the kingdom of God looks like – it’s the world turned upside down. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

“…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Challenging – we’ll have to sacrifice a lot in that upside-down world - but that’s what the kingdom of God looks like. That’s the kingdom of God that’s already happening but not yet here. That’s the kingdom of God that the seventy and you and I and all Christians are sent out by Jesus to proclaim and to build.

That’s the kingdom of God we see when we prepare a really good meal for the homeless shelter or the soup kitchen. That’s the kingdom of God we touch when we reach out to a person in sorrow or pain. That’s the kingdom of God we feel when, like Robert Byrd, we overcome our prejudices. That’s the kingdom of God that we hear when together we sing God’s praises. That’s the kingdom of God we taste each time we gather together at the Lord’s Table and become one with Christ and one another.

And, you know, I believe that old deist Thomas Jefferson with his cut-up Bible has given us Americans a special opportunity to build the kingdom of God. At the birth of our country, during that hot Philadelphia summer, in our “American Scripture,” Jefferson and the others rightly declared that our Creator had given all of us rights that could never be taken from us – including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But, Jefferson and the others didn’t show us how to use these rights, these gifts from God. Unfortunately all too often we can and often do misuse these rights, these gifts for our own selfish purposes. The sad truth is that when we misuse these rights in effect we forfeit them – when we focus only on ourselves we end up not having much of a life, we end up imprisoned by our fear of losing our money and possessions, and we end up not happy at all.

But, Jesus shows us the way – Jesus shows us how to use these rights, these gifts. We are called to give away our lives in loving service, using our liberty to build the kingdom of God right here and now. And it’s when we do that - when we choose to help build the kingdom of God - then we discover true happiness.

Happy Independence Day!