Sunday, October 28, 2012

Spiritual Persistence

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 28, 2012

Year B: Proper 25 – The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
(Hebrews 7:23-28)
Mark 10:46-52

Spiritual Persistence
            On Friday some parishioners and I visited the Thomas Edison National Park in West Orange.
            This trip was different from the others we’ve taken lately because there was no obvious religious angle. I had hoped that Edison had been an Episcopalian or at least a Christian. But, although his second wife was a committed Methodist, the great inventor himself had no use for religion.
            Anyway, we had a great time touring Edison’s factory and lab and also his nearby estate. We learned a lot. One of the key points made by the park rangers about Edison was his persistence.
            Edison and his team performed thousands and thousands of experiments, determined to turn their ideas into reality and then, of course, turn a handsome profit on their amazing new inventions.
            The persistent Edison was perfectly pleased when an experiment produced a negative result because it still brought him a little closer to finding the right answer.
            Edison’s persistence paid off in many ways. He was awarded 1,093 US patents – still the most for any individual.
            And Edison’s persistence paid off in inventions that shaped the modern world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the stock ticker, and, most important of all, the light bulb.
            Like Edison, most, if not all, of us know about the power of persistence.
            Persistence is powerful because it’s an act of faith. It’s an act of faith in ourselves.
            Many of us know the power of persistence at school or work.
            Many of us know the power of persistence in sports or learning a musical instrument or mastering a foreign language.
            Our parishioner Mike Kostial and his brother know the power of persistence when today, after many months of preparation, they run in the Marine Corps Marathon, raising money for the fight against cancer.
            We know about the power of persistence in our everyday lives, but we can easily forget the power of persistence in our spiritual lives.
            In our spiritual lives, persistence is even more powerful because it’s an act of faith in God.
            Persistence, that act of faith, creates room for God, makes an opening for God to do great things in our lives.
            In Scripture we have examples of people being persistent and people not being persistent.
            Remember a few weeks ago we heard the story of the rich man asking Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life? He claimed to have followed all the commandments. But, when Jesus called him to give up his possessions, he threw in the towel.
            The rich man was unwilling to persist, unwilling to make that act of faith, unwilling to make room for God to do something great in his life.
            In today’s lessons, though, we have examples of people who do spiritually persist.
            For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing excerpts from the Book of Job – this ancient folktale about undeserved suffering. Remember as a result of a bet made between God and Satan, the righteous Job lost just about everything: his family, his wealth and his health.
            Job mourns and complains bitterly, crying out in despair because God seems to have abandoned him.
            Yet, through it all, Job persists – remaining faithful and never cursing God as Satan had predicted. And as we heard today, at the conclusion of the story, Job’s persistence is rewarded when God gives Job twice as much as he had before.
            And then there’s blind Bartimaeus in today’s gospel lesson.
            Blind Bartimaeus actually sees more than most when he calls out, “Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me!” And when many sternly order him to be quiet, Bartimaeus persists, crying out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
            And, Bartimaeus’ persistence is rewarded when Jesus gives him his sight, saying “Go; your faith has made you well.”
            Essentially Jesus tells Bartimaeus, “Go; your persistence has made you well.”
            In our spiritual lives, persistence is powerful because it’s an act of faith in God.
            Persistence, that act of faith, creates room for God, makes an opening for God to do great things in our lives.
            So, what about us? How spiritually persistent are we?
            I can only speak for myself.
            And the bottom line is I’m not as spiritually persistent as Job or as Bartimaeus.
            How about you?
            I wrote an article in the upcoming Messenger called “Spiritual Stewardship.” I wrote that just as we’re called to be good stewards of our material wealth, God also expects us to be good stewards of our spiritual resources – and most especially the power of prayer.
            So, as you’ll see, I’ve issued a little challenge to the parish. Take a look at your Grace Notes. (This will be one time when it’s OK to look at your bulletin during the sermon!) On page 11 you’ll find our parish prayer list.
            For the next month I challenge all of us to take Grace Notes home and spiritually persist by praying for everyone on the list every day. There’s no one right time or way to do it. In the morning with your cup of coffee. At night before bed. Say the names aloud. Read them silently. Run your finger across the names.
            Just pray the prayer list in a way that feels right and works for your schedule. And if you miss a day, don’t give up. Persist. Maybe pray the list twice the next day.
            Like Thomas Edison, we know about the power of persistence in our everyday lives, but we can easily forget the power of persistence in our spiritual lives.
            Spiritual persistence is powerful because it’s an act of faith in God.
            Persistence, this act of faith, creates room for God, makes an opening for God to do great things in our lives, in the lives of others – and in the life of our parish.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

God is With Us in Our Despair

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 14, 2012

Year B: Proper 23 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
(Hebrews 4:12-16)
Mark 10:17-31
God is With Us in Our Despair
            I don’t know about you, but I enjoy reading newspaper obituaries of people who have lived long, full, and interesting lives.
            Earlier this month I read the obituary of Eric Hobsbawm, who was one of the most accomplished British historians of the past century.
            He wrote a series of books on the history of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  The first was what’s still his best-known book, The Age of Revolution. He followed that with The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and finally The Age of Extremes.
            If something works, you stick with it. Anyway, after I finished reading Hobsbawm’s obituary, I wondered what title he’d give to a history our own time.
            My guess is: The Age of Despair.
            To a large extent we live in an age of despair.
            Much of the time we try to hide our despair from others – maybe especially from those closest to us.
            People ask, “How are you?” And usually, no matter what, we say, “great” or “fine” or maybe if we’re willing to be a little vulnerable, “OK”.
            But, try as we might, that despair comes bubbling up in all sorts of ways.
            In our personal lives despair bubbles up when we cut-off people from our lives or when we act out, maybe blowing small things out of proportion or making a nasty comment or passing along gossip. The despair bubbles up when make self-destructive choices - maybe drinking more than we should or simply neglecting our responsibilities and commitments.
            There’s a whole lot of despair bubbling up in the current election cycle. Our national problems and challenges seem to be beyond our leaders and those who want to lead us. And, though many of us have strong opinions, how many of us can honestly say we understand the complexities of the economy, the federal budget, health care reform, the Middle East, the environment, and on and on?
            We live in the age of despair.
            And there are two main causes of our despair.
            The first cause of our despair might be summed up as “stuff happens”.
            This is the despair caused by bad news from the doctor. This is the despair caused when we – or people we care about or depend upon - lose a job. This is the despair caused by fears of default and foreclosure. This is the despair caused by betrayal. This is the despair caused by crumbling or broken relationships.
            This is the despair that makes us cry to heaven, asking God, “Where are you?” “How can you let this happen to me?” “Why don’t you do something?”
            Of course, there’s nothing new about this type of despair. Long ago, the psalmist asked:
             “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
              In today’s first lesson we heard a little bit from the Book of Job. This unusual book is a folktale mostly about the despair caused by undeserved suffering – despair caused when “stuff happens.”            
            Do you know the story? Job is a blameless and upright man. He enjoys a full and prosperous life. But Satan suggests to God that Job is only blameless and upright because things have always gone his way. Faced with some misfortune, Satan is sure that Job will curse God.
            So, a bet is made in heaven between God and Satan.  Satan bets that, faced with terrible misfortune, Job will curse God.
            So for no reason that he can tell, the righteous and faithful Job loses his wealth and his children and is wracked with disease.
            And, just like us, when stuff happens blameless and upright Job despairs.
            Job despairs because God seems to be absent.
            Job says about God, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!”
            And then, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”
            The first type of despair is caused when “stuff happens.”
            And then there’s a second type of despair – an even worse type of despair that we make for ourselves.
            This “self-made” despair is caused when our priorities are out of order.
            This “self-made” despair is caused by focusing too much on accumulating possessions and preserving our wealth – things that, on their own, can’t make us happy, content or joyful.
            This “self-made” despair comes from worrying too much about professional success. It’s the type of despair that’s caused by caring too much about what other people think about us.
            This “self-made” despair comes from spending too much time bemoaning the state of the world and not enough time getting out there helping others.
            This “self-made” despair comes from trying to live someone else’s life and not living our own.
            The rich man in today’s gospel seems to be suffering from this “self-made” despair.
            Mark packs a lot into this little passage. The rich man approaches Jesus and seems to try buttering him up. He kneels before Jesus and calls him “Good Teacher” and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            Jesus answers him by running down some of the commandments, adding one that’s actually not part of the ten: “You shall not defraud.” Maybe this is a sign that Jesus knows that not all of this man’s wealth has been obtained in honorable ways.
            The rich man claims to have followed all of these commandments. And, like Jesus, let’s take him at his word.  Jesus loves him no matter what. But then Jesus calls him to one final and great sacrifice: sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus.
            We’re told, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
            Sounds like “self-made” despair to me.
            After he’s gone, Jesus tells his disciples how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.
            I know that makes my stomach sink a little. I bet that Sue and I have many more possessions and enjoy much greater luxury than the rich man in the story. And, for that matter, we live better than just about everyone else who has ever lived or is alive today.
            So, is it nearly impossible for us to enter God’s kingdom?
            Talk about despair! And then it seems to get worse. Notice what Jesus says next: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.”
            Turns out, it’s hard for everybody to enter the kingdom of God!
            So, where’s the good news in today’s lessons?
            The good news is that both the rich man and Job were wrong.
            The good news is the rich man was wrong. The rich man asked the wrong question. God’s love and eternal life are gifts given freely by God to those who are open to receiving them. We don’t have to “do” anything – we can’t do anything - to inherit them. God’s love and eternal life are not things that we can buy and own.
            Just before today’s passage from Mark, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
            All that’s really required is not easy but is doable. All that’s really required is an open heart to receive God’s love – and then God, for whom nothing is impossible, takes it from there.
            Job knew about despair. But, the good news is Job was wrong.
            Job thought God had abandoned him. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward I can not perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”
            But, Job was wrong. God was right there with Job the whole time.
            And God is with us in our age of despair. Whether it’s despair caused when stuff happens or despair that’s self-made, God is with us.
            I’ve seen God with us in our despair over and over again – and I bet you have, too.
            I saw God with us in our despair a while back when I visited the home of a dying parishioner and he and his family and I shared a simple and beautiful communion service on what turned out to be his last day of consciousness and just a few days before his death.
            I’ve seen God with us in our despair when people lose their jobs or when a marriage gets broken or when a frightening diagnosis is given. God’s love is shared as friends gather round offering support, offering shoulders to cry on, offering hands to hold, offering ears and hearts to listen - for as long as it takes.
            And we’ve seen God with us in our despair when a family took the brave step of asking us all to help a fragile little boy, asking for what probably seemed impossible – and God’s love was unleashed.
            We may live in an age of despair but there’s good news all around us.
            There’s the good news that all that’s required of us is not easy but is doable: an open heart to receive God’s greatest gifts of love and eternal life.
            And there’s the good news that God is always with us in our despair.
            God is with us.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Paul Among the People

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Associate’s Message

Paul Among the People

During this past summer, a determined, thoughtful and patient group of parishioners grappled with N.T. Wright’s provocative – and sometimes exasperating – book, After You Believe.  In this book, Wright argues that the early Christians introduced a new ethical system and, in fact, a new way of being human. Although Christian ethics and morality shares a passing resemblance to some classical philosophy, Wright insists that Christianity was wildly countercultural in the First Century, introducing notions like the precious value of every human life – and inspiring early followers of Jesus to sacrifice themselves for people unrelated and unknown to them, and who could offer nothing in return.

Wright bolsters his argument by quoting Christian Scripture, especially texts written by St. Paul, or written in his name. After Jesus, Paul is widely considered to be the most important and influential person in Christian history. After his dramatic conversion experience, this ex-Pharisee not only quit persecuting followers of Jesus but he spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean world telling people the Good News of Christ. Paul started congregations, squabbled with other disciples, suffered ridicule, arrests, beatings and ultimately martyrdom.  And, of course, Paul wrote letters, at least some of which survived and eventually were incorporated into the Christian Bible, making him the best-represented author in the New Testament.

Paul wrote his letters to specific communities in response to particular pastoral issues. Sometimes we are not entirely clear what those issues were since, unfortunately, we have only one side of the correspondence. Although he seems to have had a very healthy ego, undoubtedly Paul would be shocked to learn that his letters have been considered sacred for two millennia.

Paul would probably also be shocked by his reputation among many Christians today. My sense is that two things most commonly come to mind when – or if - we think of Paul. First we think of his familiar ode to love in First Corinthians, a passage often read weddings: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Second, today many people (including many committed Christians) think of Paul as the person largely responsible for twisting Jesus’ inclusive message of love and forgiveness into what they perceive as a rigid religion obsessed with rules, sexuality and patriarchy.

More than once during the summer we lamented that we didn’t know enough about the classical world or enough about Paul to evaluate Wright’s claims. Just how different were Christians from everybody else? Just how different was the message proclaimed by Paul from the teachings of others in the First Century?

In part to answer those questions, this fall everyone is invited to read and discuss Sarah Ruden’s book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. (You can find out details about the group on page X of The Messenger.) Ruden is a classicist best known for her translations of ancient literature including The Aeneid. She uses her deep knowledge of ancient literature and culture to place Paul in his First Century context. Employing a witty and accessible style, Ruden takes a fresh look at what Paul has to say about pleasure, homosexuality, women, government, slavery, and love. She contrasts Paul’s thought with what other writers were presenting at around the same time.

Thinking about Paul in his First Century context is not just an interesting historical exercise, however. Looking back at Paul among the people of his time just might prompt us to reflect on the counter-cultural nature of Christianity in our own time. After all, like Paul, we live in a society that reduces many human beings from beloved children of God to mere objects for pleasure or use of others. Like Paul, we live in a society that celebrates and even, in a sense, worships individual material success without also expecting and celebrating a commitment to the common good. Like Paul, we live in a society that shows little concern about the increasingly desperate plight of the poor.

As someone who gave away his life to follow Jesus and who offered a radically different way of life, Paul still has some important things to say to us today.

This fall I hope you will give Paul Among the People a try and (re-)discover this essential, fascinating, complex, puzzling and courageous apostle.