Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Things Never Change

The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 29, 2010

Year C, Proper 17: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Some Things Never Change

When I first sat down to read, and pray about and think about today’s Scripture readings, I immediately thought, “Some things never change.”

The reading from Jeremiah comes from a time when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah lost their independence. The prophet clearly chalks up these devastating events to the people losing faith in God and putting their faith in false gods such as Baal. The prophet also blames these devastating events on the people losing their faith in God and instead putting their faith in alliances with other countries.

Without a doubt, the prophet believes that God is angry at this lack of faith. But, more than that, there’s a sense of God almost being hurt by this lack of faith.

Jeremiah interprets God as saying, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”

You can hear the sadness in that divine question, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?”

Jeremiah was a prophet who lived during a time when people put their faith in earthly things and suffered the consequences.

It sure seems like some things never change.

We also live in a time when we put our ultimate faith in earthly gods and suffer the consequences. Think of how many people put their faith in their wealth only to see it evaporate during this terrible recession. I read a news story about a former mayor of my hometown who had made a killing on Wall Street back in the ‘80s and retired when he was still a young man, and served as mayor for a couple of terms. Now, according to the news report, because of what’s happened to his investment portfolio, he and his wife have only $5000 in the bank.

Not unlike the long-ago people of Israel and Judah, too often we put our ultimate faith in earthly gods and suffer the consequences. Think of how many of us put our ultimate faith in our talents or our intelligence or our charm or our appearance. Think of how many of us put our ultimate faith in our political leaders or in our military power.

It sure seems like some things never change.

But, no matter how things seem, as Christians we know that things have changed and are changing. We don’t have the option of looking at the state of the world and shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Eh, what are you gonna do? Some things never change.”

That’s not an option because in Jesus, God reveals to us what God dreams we will be. In Jesus, God reveals to us what God dreams the world will be. In Jesus, God reveals what the kingdom of God is like and what the kingdom of God will be like.

In Jesus, the kingdom of God draws near. Things have begun to change.

So, in the reading from the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus at a Sabbath meal with Pharisees and others. At first, Jesus offers what seems like just pretty good etiquette advice. Essentially, Jesus says, to avoid embarrassment at a dinner party, don’t sit at the place of honor unless you’re invited to do so by the host. And it’s true, it’s embarrassing to be told, uh, sorry, I’m saving this seat for my friend. Or, sorry, this area is reserved for our first class customers. You’re seat is back there.

So, OK, Jesus gives some good, sort of ho-hum etiquette advice. But, then, just when we think Jesus has made his point, he reveals something about the kingdom of God. Jesus reveals that in the kingdom of God things are different. Things are going to change.

Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In God’s kingdom, the world will be turned upside-down. We hear this message throughout the Gospel of Luke. Early on, when the pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts into song, singing God’s praises, singing a vision of God’s kingdom. She sings, that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

And in Jesus’ great sermon in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches that in God’s kingdom it’s the poor and the hungry and the weeping and the outcast and the mocked who are blessed.

In Jesus, the kingdom of God has drawn near. And in God’s kingdom things are changing, things are going to change.
So, what about us? Are we part of the change that begins with Jesus? In us, in the way we live our lives, does the kingdom of God continue to draw near?

In our New Testament reading, we heard a powerful passage from the Letter to the Hebrews – which, by the way, was neither a letter nor addressed to the Hebrews! Instead, it’s a sermon sent to an early Christian community made up of probably both Jews and gentiles. It seems that maybe this community had begun to lose some of its enthusiasm for Christian living. So the anonymous author of Hebrews sends some very clear and pointed reminders of how they – and we – are to live Christian lives.

Today’s excerpt began with the beautiful phrase, “Let mutual love continue.” Do we live lives of love? Or do we live like things never change – concerned only about ourselves or about our stuff?

Then the author of Hebrews tells that early Christian community to offer hospitality to strangers and adds “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Just how important is hospitality to us? Did we really mean it a few minutes ago when we sang “All are Welcome”? How well do we welcome the stranger into this chapel – or is there a tendency for us to be a nice, cozy little club?

Then we’re called to remember those in prison and those who are being tortured. Probably the author had in mind other Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. And there are many thousands of Christians around the world who being persecuted for following Jesus. Do we ever remember them? And, closer to home, how much thought do we give to the many tens of thousands who are imprisoned all around us?

I read a startling statistic in the diocesan newspaper. In the Diocese of Florida there are 33 prisons, containing over 33,000 prisoners. They are all around us and yet nearly invisible and easy to forget. Yet, if in us the kingdom of God is drawing near, then not only do we need to remember those thousands of prisoners but we also need to ask some uncomfortable questions.

Why is there so much crime in our country? Why are so many of our brothers and sisters locked up?

Finally, the author of Hebrews calls us to keep our commitments, to be faithful, and to avoid the love of money.

When we live this way then truly the kingdom of God draws near. When we live lives of love and compassion and humility and simplicity and faithfulness and integrity, then the kingdom of God draws near. When we live this way then the world turns upside-down and just about everything changes.

But, it turns out that some things really never do change. Living this kind of Christian life was a challenge back in the First Century and it’s a challenge for us today. But, we don’t do it alone. We live out our Christian lives together here in community and always supported by the love and grace and power of Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews writes, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever.”

Some things never change.


Sunday, August 22, 2010


Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 22, 2010

Year C, Proper 16: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17


This is a really exciting time. For my wife Sue and me, we’ve managed to finish the move of ourselves and our cat, Noelle, and (I hope) all our stuff from New Jersey to Gainesville. The unpacking is going to take a while, but we’re glad to be here and excited to be with all of you.

And, of course, with school starting this is an exciting time here at UF. It’s been fun these past couple of days to see freshmen and their parents wearing their brand-new Gator t-shirts, wandering around, taking it all in. We were over at Target a couple of days ago and there they were, filling the aisles, buying all the stuff needed to equip a dorm room.

Way back when I was in elementary school, I would moan and groan about the end of summer vacation. Maybe you did the same thing. But, secretly I was excited that school was about to start, excited that I was going to see my friends and excited to learn new things. Maybe you felt the same way. At the end of each summer I always liked going with my mom and sister to buy new notebooks and book bags and lunch boxes – although for a little kid it was a lot of pressure to decide which was the coolest lunch box to have.

Later in college I was always eager to get to the bookstore as early as I could – to get good deals on used books, but mostly just to see what books I’d be reading, to find out what new things I’d be studying and learning about that semester. You probably know the feeling.

And that’s all good. But, of course, school isn’t about the new books and book bags and clothes and laptops and textbooks, and all the rest. All of that stuff, including what will be blessed in a few minutes, needs to be used. The bindings of your books need to be broken. Notes need to be written on the margins. Your laptop needs to get beaten up a little bit. If we keep our supplies in mint condition we’ve missed the point. Those things are just means to an end.

When school would start and throughout the school year I’d also worry a lot about my grades. Maybe you can relate. I’d be especially worried about math. I was always weak in math and my math grades would sometimes keep me off of honor roll. I remember being at honor assemblies seething with resentment of my teachers and anger at myself when I’d see my friends and classmates get their little honor cards and I’d just be sitting there, fuming.

But, despite my bad attitude, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades, to do as well as you can, to receive honors for your ability and hard work. But, just like your notebooks and textbooks, grades are just a means to an end.

School isn’t about clean new notebooks or perfect grades.

School is about learning about the world and about yourself. School is about getting ready to go out into the world. School is about getting prepared to earn a living so you can support yourself. But, more important, school is about getting ready to go out into the world and help to build a better world. School is about getting prepared to go out and help build a better world. I don’t need to tell you that we live in a world bent by poverty and injustice and materialism and immorality. All of us are needed - all of us are called - to help heal our bent and broken world.

We need to be healers.

And what’s true about school is even truer about our religious life.

In today’s gospel lesson, we heard a story told only by Luke of Jesus healing a woman who has been bent over for eighteen years. Nothing unusual about that. The problem, of course, is that Jesus healed her on the Sabbath. According Jewish law, there should be no physical work on the Sabbath.

Now, since this woman had been in pain for so long, presumably Jesus could have waited another day to do the healing. But, obviously Jesus and Luke are trying to make a point in setting this healing on the Sabbath.

The point is that our religious practices are just fine so long as we remember that that they are means to an end. If our religious practices help us to be better Christians - better healers of a bent and broken world - then that’s great. But, we shouldn’t think that it’s our religious practices that make us Christians.

What makes us Christians is opening our hearts to the power of God. What makes us Christians is allowing God to work through us to heal our bent and broken world, to build the kingdom of God right here and now.

I don’t know this community very well yet, but I bet there are bent people all around us. There are people who are bent because they are unpopular or outcasts, who are bent by regrets about bad decisions, who are bent by worry about illness or money, who are bent by addiction, who are bent by fears about the future. I bet there are bent people all around us.

As Christians we are called to imitate and continue the healing work of Jesus.

We are called to be healers.

And you don’t have to wait until after graduation to get started on that healing work. In our Old Testament lesson we heard God’s call to the prophet Jeremiah. God calls him to the difficult work of being a prophet. Jeremiah replies, no way, God, I’m too young:

“Ah, Lord GOD, Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

And God replies, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

So, two good messages for us as we begin an exciting new year. I pray that we remember that as Christians we are called to imitate and continue the healing work of Jesus, no matter our age. And I pray that through our life together here at Chapel House, we may receive the strength and the grace to do the healing work God has given us to do.

We need to be – and we are called to be – healers.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Love is a Verb

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 15, 2010

Love is a Verb: A Farewell to Grace Church

First, I’d like to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this a special day for Sue and me, and really for all of us, as we celebrate these three years together. So, thank you to the amazing and tireless Midge Cassidy for her very hard work putting this reception together under less than ideal circumstances. Thanks also to Mary Lea for organizing all of those pictures out in the lobby – it’s kind of overwhelming, actually. I can’t really take it all in at once. Thanks to Stacy Wilde for the decorations here today. And thanks to Dr. Anne and Eric Stroud and all the members of the choir who in the dog days of summer rehearsed this past week and as always gave us the gift of beautiful music. Sue and I are very grateful.

Looking back over the past three years, I’d like to thank the wardens (Geoff Brooks, Judy Jurgensen, Dave Gates and Chris Wilde) and vestry members past and present for their leadership and support. I’d also like to thank again Chris Wilde and all the J2A leaders past and present for their commitment to our youth. Thanks to Kit Cone for the many ways he has helped us over the past three years and now for volunteering to drive one of our cars to Florida next week. Thanks to the head acolytes, Will Brooks and Siobhan McCulloch – the acolytes are in very good hands with these two young leaders. And thanks to George Hayman for his friendship and in a quiet way for helping Sue in the strange role of clergy spouse.

On one of our first Sundays here the J2A group was having a fundraiser making and selling tie-dye t-shirts. And on the back of the shirts was printed the phrase, “Love is a Verb.”

I’ve liked that expression ever since and have worked it into a couple of sermons these past three years. It’s a phrase that captures what this church is all about. Grace Church is a church that expresses its faith and love through action. Love is a verb. Sometimes the verb is quietly opening a checkbook and offering remarkable generosity to the souper bowl fundraiser, the J2A pilgrimage, the Recycling Ministry, or simply in a pledge.

Sometimes the verb is standing for a couple of hours at the Community Soup Kitchen serving food or washing hundreds of trays and pots and pans. Sometimes the verb is day after day delivering furniture to the least among us. Sometimes the verb is personally visiting all of the places that receive outreach money from Grace. The verb is reaching out to a parishioner or a family in trouble. The verb is picking up the phone or sending a note to someone who is lonely or sad or frightened. Sometimes the verb is working on the church budget or managing the endowment or crafting new window sills, or upgrading our technology. Sometimes the verb is giving up a week of summer vacation time to go on a mission trip or pilgrimage with our youth.

Sometimes the verb is organizing the clothing sale and the auction, or volunteering at the clothing sale or auction. Sometimes the verb is spending hours polishing brass or ironing linens. Sometimes the verb is helping a fellow choir member who’s lost his or her place. Other times the verb is attending long vestry meetings. The verb is staying to clean up after an event. Sometimes the verb is sacrificing the time to teach Sunday School or lead a youth group. Sometimes the verb is coming by church near dusk or early in the morning to make sure the plants are getting enough water.

And sometimes the verb is simply being here, worshiping together, praying for ourselves, our families and friends, the community and the world.

Because I had used the phrase in a couple of sermons, a while back Jabez Van Cleef gave me the screen used to make “Love is a Verb” shirts. I will bring the phrase in my heart but this really belongs here as a reminder of who you really are. It’s been a while, so maybe it’s time to make some more shirts – and, if you do, don’t forget to send us a couple.

Believe me, this past month I’ve been thinking a lot of all I will miss about Grace Church. And as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized how Grace Church is made up of little communities. So I give special thanks for Tuesday evening craft guild, the Wednesday and Thursday morning congregations, the Friday men’s breakfast, choir moms (and an occasional dad) on Friday afternoon, the Saturday breakfast group and the gang at the Last Chance Mass, and the list goes on. And if you’re not connected to one or more of the little communities here, I hope you’ll give it a try.

The little community I will miss the most is the group of colleagues I’ve worked with here these past three years. Working with them – you - has been not only an excellent professional experience, but also a great gift to me personally. We have been partners in ministry. Everyone in this little community of colleagues and friends has understood that love is a verb.

So, thank you to the three parish administrators, Nina Nicholson, Jabez VanCleef, and Kirk Petersen. Especially these days, it’s not so hard to find skilled people, but Nina, Jabez and Kirk brought not only fine skills but also a deep love for the Church and its mission. All three were also great fun to work with – and never once seemed to lose their patience when I would say something like, “I hate to ask you to do one more thing, but…”

It’s hard to find superlatives that are superlative enough to describe what it’s been like to work with Mary Lea Crawley and Anne Matlack. Both are geniuses with huge hearts and willing and able to work, keep working and work some more. One important and rare thing they both share is that they both care about the life of the whole church – not just the areas in their job description. The kind of pastoral care they both give to so many is a precious gift – and one of the most important reasons this is as strong a church as it is. They both have been great friends and although the team is breaking up I hope our friendship will stay strong.

A little more than three years ago I told a priest in this diocese that there was a possibility I would be going to Grace Madison to be Lauren Ackland’s curate. I told him that I had seen Lauren at different diocesan events and a couple of times over at General Seminary, but didn’t really know her at all. I told him I wasn’t sure about moving to the suburbs and what it would be like to work with her at Grace Madison.

He looked at me and said, “Jump at it.”

This priest went on to tell me how wonderful Lauren was, how smart and talented, how well-respected and how envious he would be if I had this opportunity. Frankly, I thought it was a little over the top. He did say that she would expect me to work hard, and, get this, she would want to read my sermons before she’d let me get into the pulpit.

All true, but what I’ve discovered is that he wasn’t over the top enough. When we first met and talked about the job, we seemed to hit it off and be on the same page about things church. But, one thing I remember from that day is she took me to lunch at Charlie Brown’s and when she said grace she thanked God for new friends.

At the time I was surprised, but she was right – we did become great friends. I was so honored to have her preach at my ordination and it has been the most amazing experience to learn from and to work side by side with a priest who is so deeply dedicated to the Church and its people; a priest who exemplifies the ordination vow to be a faithful pastor; a priest who is also a great friend.

When I interviewed here, I asked Lauren why she thought this church was doing so well while so many others seem to be struggling. There are many reasons, of course, many of whom are in this room, but Lauren said she believed that the fact that Grace has at lest one service of public worship every day of the year was an important reason.

Over my three years here I have come to believe that’s true. So much prayer in that beautiful building has a powerful spiritual effect. I also compare our daily services to the Sunday New York Times. I’m probably not going to read it all or maybe not even most of it, but it’s nice to know it’s there. So, even when I’ve missed a weekday service, it was comforting to know that at least one person was there praying for all of us.

When I began thinking about a gift for the parish, I thought about how much the weekday services have meant to me. Now, Lauren and I and the worship leaders know that the books containing the weekday lessons are falling apart. So, it may not be very dramatic, but it’s very meaningful to me to give to you a new set of lesson books; it’s very meaningful that these books will help with daily prayer in a place that has been a place of prayer for me and where I learned that love is a verb.

Uncomfortable Words

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 15, 2010

Year C, Proper 15: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80 1-2, 8-18
(Hebrews 11:29-12:2)
Luke 12:49-56

Uncomfortable Words

Well, I don’t know about you, but I was hoping we were going to hear something a little more upbeat today. It’s an emotional day – we have a baptism at the 10:00 service, which is always an occasion for tears of joy and wonder – and sometimes shrieks of anger as water is poured over a baby’s head. And, as most of you are sick of hearing about by now, today is my last day as your curate. Tomorrow morning the movers arrive and Sue and I begin a journey into our exciting and humid future in Florida.

So, I admit I was hoping for something a little easier, a little lighter, a little more comfortable today. In our Rite I service we continue the very old Anglican practice of saying scripture verses known as the “Comfortable Words.” Now, one of those would have been great today. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Much better, right?

But, instead we get uncomfortable words. We began with a rich passage from the Prophet Isaiah, what’s called “The Song of the Vineyard.” The prophet compares Israel to a vineyard. God did everything God could to nurture Israel and expected it to produce good fruit.

We’re told that instead Israel produced “wild grapes.” And so the prophet tells us that God will withdraw God’s protection from the land and it will be destroyed. Uncomfortable words.

Of course, this song isn’t about growing grapes – it’s about human behavior, or misbehavior. It’s about how we respond to the great gifts God has given us – the gift of life itself, this beautiful planet, our families and friends, the Church, the ability to love and to create. It’s a song about how so often we take these beautiful gifts and warps them into something horrible.
The prophet writes that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

And that sums up much of the human story then and now, doesn’t it? From the senseless murder of a hard-working restaurant worker and family man just a few miles away in Summit to the senseless massacre of ten medical workers in Afghanistan, still today God expects justice, yet sees bloodshed. Right now, at least 80% of the world is living on less than $10 a day. Still today God expects righteousness, yet hears cries.

Bloodshed and tears are still the status quo for much of humanity.

The life and mission of Jesus was about challenging that bloody and tearful status quo. In his parables, Jesus reveals what God is really like. God is like the father who can’t wait, who runs out to welcome the prodigal son who has returned. God is like the shepherd who is willing to go out and search for the one sheep that got away.

In his teaching, Jesus reveals what God is really like. Jesus went around teaching people to love their enemies, to forgive seven times seventy times. Jesus went around telling people to give away their possessions. Jesus went around telling people that we are to show mercy to the outcast, the outsider, the bloody near-dead man lying by the side of the road, even if that means risking our status or even our lives.

In his vision, Jesus reveals what God is really like. Jesus went around telling people that the kingdom of God was coming near and in God’s kingdom blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, the weeping and the hated. Jesus went around telling people that the kingdom of God was coming near and in God’s kingdom woe to the rich, woe to those who are full, woe to those who are laughing and spoken well of.

In his actions, Jesus reveals what God is really like. God is not impressed or intimidated by the powers of the world. God is not satisfied with the ways of the world. God is always calling us something better, to the transformed world Jesus called the kingdom of God.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals what God is really like. God still loves us even when we reject and rebel against that love – and despite what the world thinks, love is stronger than death itself.

Jesus knew very well that challenging the status quo would rock the world. And so it’s not the meek and mild Jesus we heard today. It’s the totally honest and realistic Jesus. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Uncomfortable words.

As some of you remember, for a long time in our country, going to church, being a Christian in the most superficial sense, was simply what people did. It was part of the culture. Being a Christian was mainstream, normal. There was very little cost – beyond paying one’s pledge – to being that kind of Christian.

In the past few decades the culture has changed, and at least in our part of the country churchgoing is not so normal anymore. (We’ll see about Florida!) But, there are now many young adults who have no experience of church, have only the haziest understanding of who Jesus is, of what Christianity is all about.

Back in the 1970s the people who created our prayer book had the insight to recognize how the culture was changing. The Church realized it had to be a lot more explicit about what it means to be a Christian. The Church had to be a lot clearer about the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Church had to underline that Jesus upset the status quo and so we are called to upset the status quo, too. The people who crafted the prayer book realized they needed to include some uncomfortable words.
And they put those uncomfortable words in what may seem an unlikely place – the baptism service. But, if you think about it, it makes sense. In baptism we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and given the grace, the strength, the power to continue the work of Jesus right here and now. And that work will make us anything but comfortable. So, here are the uncomfortable words, the uncomfortable questions, the uncomfortable challenges of the Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” Even when it’s inconvenient, even when we don’t feel like it, even when people think we’re weird?

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Do we resist that status quo of the world? Do we resist when the culture tells us profit above all, cut corners, nobody will ever know, look out for number one? Do we resist peer pressure in the office, or in school, or even in the emails and text messages we receive and send? And if we mess up are we courageous enough to confess, dust ourselves off, and try better?

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Do we live our lives in such a way so that when people see us they say hey, maybe there really is something to this Christianity stuff?

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Is there anything more counter-cultural, more upsetting to the status quo than loving your neighbor as yourself and respecting the dignity of every human being?

Uncomfortable questions. We can’t do any of this alone, of course. And that’s why in the Baptismal Covenant, we respond to each uncomfortable question with, “I will, with God’s help.” Or as I heard someone once say, maybe “With God’s help, I will” would be a better response.

But, if we’re open and willing, with God’s help so much is possible. I know that’s true because over the past three years here at Grace I’ve seen so many people take these uncomfortable words so seriously, not counting the cost. I’ve seen in countless, often small and nearly invisible ways people living profoundly Christian lives – loving wholeheartedly, giving generously, setting aside prejudices, joining together in prayer and work and fellowship. I’ve seen people live out the uncomfortable words of Jesus.

So, in baptism this is what we sign up for – or more often – get signed up for. If we take seriously continuing the work of Jesus, then, with God’s help, we will offer uncomfortable words, we will live uncomfortable lives, and we will challenge the status quo. If we take seriously the uncomfortable words of Jesus, with God’s help, together we will transform the world into the vineyard God always intended it to be, the vineyard God dreams of still.


Sunday, August 08, 2010

More Mindfulness, Less Anxiety

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 8, 2010

Year C, Proper 14: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
(Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)
Luke 12:32-40

More Mindfulness, Less Anxiety

I’ve been here just under three years, so now that we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ll admit that by nature I’m a pretty anxious person. I tend to worry about all sorts of things. Some of you know that last year Sue and I went through the ordeal of selling our house in Jersey City. In reality we hit some stumbling blocks, but as these things go, it was a fairly quick sale. In my mind, though, anxiety was in control. I had convinced myself that we would never be free of this house – that this house would haunt us for the rest of our lives. I imagined a newspaper article with the headline, “Couple Tries to Sell House for 30 Years.” For months I had trouble focusing on anything else and I know at least one person was praying for me.

Anxiety. The house was just a thing. Even if we didn’t sell it as quickly as we’d like, Sue and I were able to pay our bills. We had great people helping us. And eventually all houses, including ours, get sold. But still for a while I was nearly consumed by anxiety.

I was very much aware of my anxious nature when I began the ordination process nearly ten years ago. Ironically, one of the things that made me anxious was the idea that priests are supposed to provide a non-anxious presence. Yes, I was anxious about being non-anxious!

This was an especially big issue the summer I did what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. In our training we were reminded that as chaplains we had the awesome responsibility and privilege of being signs of God’s presence with people who were frightened by their own illness or injury – or worried about someone they loved. Just thinking about that made me more anxious.

So, when I went into hospital rooms I worked very hard at projecting a non-anxious presence, all while my anxiety was causing my stomach to churn. But, with experience, I became pretty good at projecting – OK, faking - a non-anxious presence. In fact, I became too good at it.

After describing several hospital room visits, in which I said very little and maintained what I hoped was a pleasant, non-anxious expression on my face, my supervisor became concerned. She realized that I had been so focused on me, on being a non-anxious presence that I wasn’t expressing to these suffering people that I understood at least in part the pain, fear, anger, confusion and, yes, anxiety, they were feeling. These suffering people weren’t sure that I really got it.

I was so busy paying attention to what was going on inside me and what I was projecting to others, that I wasn’t being mindful of what was happening in those hospital rooms. My efforts to hide anxiety prevented me from offering compassion.
My supervisor told me that sometimes the best pastoral care we can give is saying to a suffering person, “This is really terrible.” Sometimes, depending on the person, more colorful language is called for. And after many experiences I’ve come to know that it’s true – suffering people want to know that the people around them understand that they’re going through something horrible. Suffering people want to know that we’re paying attention to them – not to how their suffering is making us feel. We have to recognize and acknowledge the anxiety we feel. Once that’s out of the way, it’s possible to offer real compassion and comfort.

The truth is, though, often we just get stuck at anxiety – which never produces anything positive. Our house didn’t sell any faster or for a higher price because of all my worrying. My anxiety just made me miserable, made the lives of those around me not so much fun, and distracted me from all the ways that God was at work in the world.

So, it should be no surprise that many, if not all, religious traditions call us to mindfulness. When we’re mindful we focus on what’s most important. When we’re mindful we remember God’s love and all the many gifts we receive every day. We remember what a gift it is to just be alive, to breathe, to love and to be loved. And sure enough, when we’re mindful anxiety seems to fade at least a bit, and we become more loving and peaceful people.

More mindfulness, less anxiety.

There’s no doubt we live in a time of great anxiety. It’s easy to be anxious. It’s hard to be mindful. We all know the economy continues to sputter. The war in Iraq has cost us precious blood and many billions of dollars and yet yielded less than satisfactory results. Meanwhile in Afghanistan we’re faced with the dreaded and familiar problem of not knowing who’s an ally and who’s an enemy. Here at home there’s great concern about the influx of undocumented immigrants, while at the same time we depend on them to harvest our food, clean our homes, mow our lawns, and much more. And this hot summer may just be a taste of what’s to come if the earth continues to heat up, in part because of the massive amounts of carbon we spew into the atmosphere.

These are all real issues. And many of us face our own personal challenges and worries. The question for us is, do we get stuck at anxiety? Do we expend vast amounts of energy worrying or getting angry or casting blame? If we get stuck at anxiety we never get anywhere – we just make ourselves miserable, make the people around us miserable, and get distracted from all the ways that God is at work in the world.

In the gospel, Jesus warns us about anxiety. In the section of the Gospel of Luke just before what we heard today, we have Jesus’ famous words about anxiety, or worry:

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Jesus knows that anxiety gets us nowhere. As he says in today’s lesson, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Jesus says don’t be anxious. Instead, Jesus calls us to be mindful.

More mindfulness, less anxiety.

After reassuring us of God’s love and generosity, Jesus says, “sell your possessions, and give alms.” This is always difficult to talk about, because, of course, there are some things we need to live our lives and to take care of our families. But, speaking as someone who is moving next week, and as someone who has tried over these past three years not to accumulate possessions, man, we have a lot of stuff. All that stuff can be a big source of anxiety. We could live quite well on so much less. We could use that money for the good of those who have far, far less than we do. Today’s gospel is a call to mindfulness. We live better than just about anyone else on the planet.

Then there’s one of Jesus’ famous lines, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Again, Jesus calls us to mindfulness. From time to time we should stop and pray and think. What do we really treasure? What’s most important to us? Is it our stuff? Is it the size of our bank accounts? Is it our address? Is it our level of education? Is it our appearance? Is it our status at work or in the community?

What do we really treasure? What’s most important to us? Is it our families and friends? Is it our church? Is it the opportunity to offer service to others?
Does how we live our lives, the choices we make, reflect what we treasure? Does how we live our lives reflect what’s most important to us?

Finally Luke quotes Jesus looking ahead to the end and calling us to be mindful, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus gives us a sense of urgency. There’s no time to waste. And, the truth is, if we live mindfully, then we we’re less likely to put off what’s most important. We’re less likely to say I’ll love later when I have more time. If we live mindfully, we’re less likely to say, maybe next year I’ll volunteer, maybe next year I’ll give a little more. If we live mindfully, we’re less likely to say, next time I move I’ll simplify my life.

Part of being mindful is recognizing that we don’t know how much time we have. So, now’s the time to acknowledge our anxiety. Yes, there are big problems in the world and many of us face big personal challenges. Yet, when we’re mindful, when we pay attention, we remember the many gifts we’ve been given, we can be more compassionate to the suffering of others, and we find that at least some of our anxiety fades.

More mindfulness, less anxiety.


Sunday, August 01, 2010

One Big Thing

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 1, 2010

Year C, Proper 13: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
(Colossians 3:1-11)
Luke 12:13-21

The One Big Thing

The story of Mary and Martha is still on my mind. This past Thursday was their feast day and you may remember that a couple of Sundays ago we heard the story of Jesus and his disciples visiting the home of these two sisters who react to his presence in very different ways. Martha is busy with her many tasks while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, hanging on every word. Martha expresses understandable frustration at her sister, but Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

“There is need of only one thing.”

An ancient Greek poet famously said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And when it comes to how we live our lives we’re really supposed to be spiritual hedgehogs – knowing and focused on that one big thing.

But, what is that one thing Mary has chosen? What is the one big thing we’re supposed to know and focus on? Well, when Jesus summarizes the Law, he tells us that the one big thing – the one big thing we are to know and focus on, is love of God and love of neighbor. We are meant to be spiritual hedgehogs living our lives focused on that – loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Over the centuries, many Christians have offered their own takes on the one big thing – on how to live as spiritual hedgehogs. One of the best definitions of “the one big thing” comes from Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day, it so happens, was yesterday. (It was a good week for the church calendar!)

Ignatius, who lived during the first half of the 16th Century, is best known as the founder of the Jesuits and also as a master of discernment. He wrote an entire manual to help people figure out how they could choose “the better part”, to help people recognize the one big thing, to help people be spiritual hedgehogs – living lives focused on the one big thing.

At the start of his manual, called The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius defines the purpose of human life. He writes, “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of this to save their souls.”

For Ignatius, that’s what it’s all about – that’s the one big thing – to praise, reverence and serve God. His next sentence is interesting. He writes, “The other things on the face of the earth are created for the human beings, to help them in working toward the end for which they were created.”

So, for Ignatius, the material world exists to help us live as spiritual hedgehogs knowing and focused on the one big thing - praising, reverencing and serving God, loving God, loving our neighbor.

And then Ignatius continues, “From this it follows that I should use these things to the extent that they help me toward my end, and rid myself of them to the extent that they hinder me.”

So any material goods that help us live as spiritual hedgehogs, praising, reverencing and serving God are perfectly fine. But, Ignatius insists, if material things get in the way of knowing and focusing on the one big thing, then we need to get rid of them. Material things are means, not ends.

Finally, Ignatius throws us a tough one: “To do this, I must make myself indifferent to all created things…”

Indifferent is kind of a funny word. At best, it sounds neutral, right? “Where do you want to go to dinner tonight – Houlihan’s or TGI Fridays’s?” “Eh, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, I’m indifferent.”

Or, sometimes there’s a negative meaning to indifference, like when all too often we are indifferent to the suffering of others.

But, Ignatius actually puts a positive spin on indifference. Of course, Ignatius believed that we should be caring people – that’s really the whole point - but he believed we should be caring people who care only about the one big thing. Ignatius insisted that we should be indifferent about everything except praising, reverencing and serving God. We should be indifferent to everything except loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Ignatius believed we should be indifferent to material things because he understood the dangers of idolatry. Loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor - idolatry - never really satisfies us. Loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor – idolatry – is a distortion of who we are meant to be and who we really are. Loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor - idolatry – means forgetting the one big thing and instead focusing on and trusting in the fragile and the temporary. And, in the end, loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor – idolatry – leads to disaster.

Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson – the parable of the rich fool. Just as an aside – I don’t know whether it’s on purpose or by accident, but the setting of this parable in Luke’s gospel is a nice, subtle example of putting our needs first, of forgetting or missing the one big thing. Here’s the scene: Jesus is teaching a large group of people. Jesus is speaking very seriously about the costs of following him, but also offers reassurance. According to Luke, Jesus says,

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” Serious business, right? A reminder of the one big thing of how we are meant to live our lives – despite the cost. Probably the best response to Jesus’ words would be to be quiet, think and pray. Instead, the very next verse is the start of today’s lesson:

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’” It reminds me of my teaching days, when we’d be in class talking about something important, like, say, the First Amendment, and some knucklehead would raise his hand and ask something like, “Mr. Murphy, why do you still call it a blackboard, when it’s actually green?”

Anyway, here’s Jesus, here’s the messiah, right there in front of you, talking about the one big thing, talking about the cost of following him, promising the gift of the Holy Spirit, and this guy is concerned only about his inheritance- a nice little example of idolatry – loving material things more than loving God and neighbor.

In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus gives us an almost cartoonish example of idolatry. The rich man has an abundance of crops and instead of offering his surplus to his family or to his neighbors – he builds larger barns, thinking he’s now guaranteed himself security. His kind of idolatry is concern only for himself – he thinks that taking care of “number one” is the one big thing. Big mistake. Sure enough his idolatry leads to disaster.

God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus concludes the parable, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

It’s one of Jesus’ clearest parables – to be honest, it pretty much preaches itself.

And after getting to know you over these past three years, I can say with confidence that this parable doesn’t really have much to do with us. I’ve never met a single person here who is concerned only with himself or herself. I can’t think of a single person who only looks out for “number one” and then sits back, relaxes and says, “Now I can eat, drink and be merry.”

That’s not our kind of idolatry. Our kind of idolatry is Martha’s kind of idolatry. For some of us, idolatry is when all the many tasks and concerns of life – all good things as far as it goes – prevent us from the one big thing – praising, reverencing and serving God, loving God and loving neighbor. For some of us idolatry is getting so attached to certain places and things, that they become little gods to us. For some of us idolatry is focusing on our work so that our career becomes a god to us. Our idolatry is thinking there will always be time later on for love of God, and for love of neighbor; there will always be time later on for our families and friends. Big mistake.

Our kind of idolatry isn’t as blatant as the rich fool of the parable, but it is idolatry all the same. We get distracted and forget the one big thing. In our idolatry the means becomes the end.

If it’s any consolation, all the different kinds of idolatry have been around for a long time. The prophet Hosea was a near-contemporary of the prophet Amos, from whom we heard a couple of weeks ago. Hosea lived in the 8th Century BC when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms, Judah in the South and Israel in the North. Hosea is actually the only purely northern prophet in the Bible. This was a time of great prosperity – at least for some – in Israel. But, it was also a time when many people forgot the one big thing – love of God and love of neighbor. In some cases, their idolatry may have been more obvious than ours – at the time a lot of people’s names included “Baal,” the name of a major Canaanite god. But, I’m sure in most cases they were people trying to get through the day, earn a living, get ahead in the world, and do right by their families. I’m sure most of them were people like us, who because of our many distractions and pressures forget the one big thing, people who grew too attached to places and things.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Amos warn Israel that the Day of the Lord – the day of God’s anger and punishment – was coming.

But, in the passage we heard today, Hosea offers a different message, a profound and very comforting insight into the nature of God. Hosea takes us into the mind of God. Hosea depicts God as sad and disappointed.

God seems to be talking to God’s Self, saying, “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” But despite God’s disappointment, God can’t seem to turn away from God’s people. God says, “How can I hand you over, O Israel?”

In a sense, God is a spiritual hedgehog. God is love, knowing and focusing on one big thing, love for us and for all of creation.

God is love, and we are made to praise, reverence and serve God. We are made to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s who we really are. That’s what life is all about. That’s the one big thing.

So, my fellow spiritual hedgehogs, we’re not like the rich fool, caring only for ourselves – storing up our material goods so we can eat, drink and be merry. That’s not our kind of idolatry. But, we are like Martha – distracted by our many tasks and problems. We get so attached to places and things; we get so focused on our careers and our work, that we forget the one big thing. We put off for some other day what’s most important. We can become foxes who know many things, who focus on many things, but forget the one big thing.

But, here’s the good news: Hosea shows us that despite our idolatry, God is always, no matter what, focused on loving us.

So, maybe this is a good time to take Ignatius’ advice and ask God’s help to refocus our lives on the one big thing – praising, reverencing and serving God; loving God and loving our neighbor. Maybe this is a good time to be like Mary, to be a spiritual hedgehog, knowing and focusing on the one big thing.