Sunday, November 25, 2012

Resident Aliens

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 25, 2012

Year B: The Feast of Christ the King
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19)
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37
Resident Aliens
            In my homily at our Thanksgiving service I talked a little about how most everything we do here in church is meant as a call to mindfulness.
            The architecture, the stained glass, the music, the vestments, the prayers, the Bible readings – all of it is meant to make us more mindful – make us more mindful of God at work in the past and more mindful of God at work in our lives right here and now.
            And, the Church’s call to mindfulness – the Church’s call to remember and to pay attention – has never been more needed or more difficult.
            Let’s face it - everyday life is full of worries and distractions that make mindfulness very hard.
            Since today is the last Sunday of the church year – the Feast of Christ the King – and since, of course, the calendar year is drawing to a close as well - it’s natural for us to take stock of this past year.
            It’s a year we look back on with mixed feelings, I’m sure. It was a year when jobs were lost, when relationships grew weak or collapsed completely, when beloved family members and friends died, when a huge storm battered our homes and our sense of security.
            But, it was also a year that brought new jobs and opportunities, the beginning of hopeful new relationships. It was the year some of us discovered Grace Church. And for some of us, it was a year when a huge storm helped us rediscover what we thought was lost forever.
            Whatever kind of year it was for us – with so much going on, big and small, it sure wasn’t easy to be mindful.
             And our culture is downright anti-mindfulness.
            You don’t need me to tell you that our culture is all about distraction. We’re bombarded constantly by images and noise. We’re assaulted by all sorts of appeals to want and to buy all sorts of stuff that we don’t need – and, often, isn’t even very good for us.
            And the distractions have only gotten worse in recent years with our cell phones and other gadgets incessantly beeping and blinking – insisting that we read the latest message and respond right away – with little or no thought or reflection – and certainly no mindfulness at all.
            And, we all know the distractions are going to get even worse and more intense over the next few weeks during what the world calls the Christmas season.
            Meanwhile, here at Grace – here in our house of mindfulness - we’ll be marking the holy season of Advent, this spiritually rich time when we remember the events leading up to the birth of the Messiah to a couple of nobodies who were given an awesome responsibility and who did the best they could – but that meant placing the newborn King in a manger, feeding trough meant for animals.
            Here in our house of mindfulness, we’ll be marking the holy season of Advent when we don’t only look back but also look ahead to the new world in which Christ is indeed the king.
            Advent: there’s probably no time of year when the Church is less in sync with the world. Advent is just about as counter-cultural as we get.
            But, as we heard in today’s gospel lesson, there’s nothing new about us being out of step with the world.
            In this familiar scene from the Gospel of John, the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, tries to figure out how this Jesus of Nazareth could possibly be a king. How could this nobody – this Jewish teacher without an army, this Jewish healer without even a large number of followers, how could he possibly be king?
            And, to be fair, Jesus doesn’t make it easy for the shrewd, ruthless, and practical Pilate to sort all of this out.
            Jesus tells the governor, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
            And, unfortunately, for the most part, that’s still true. Christ’s kingdom is still not of this world.
            In Christ’s kingdom, the poor are blessed.
            In Christ’s kingdom, the hungry are filled.
            In Christ’s kingdom, the mourners are laughing.
            In Christ’s kingdom, enemies love one another.
            In Christ’s kingdom, doing to others as you would have them do to you is the way of life.
            Pilate couldn’t figure out Christ the King. The world still can’t figure out Christ the King. And, usually, we still can’t figure out Christ the King.
            Yet, even though we usually can’t figure out Christ the King, through our baptism we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
            The Church is not just a house of mindfulness in our frantic world, but at our best the Church is a colony – a colony of Christ’s kingdom in the middle of a world that so often chooses hatred, selfishness and materialism.
            Back in 1989 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon published a book about the present and future of the Church. They called it Resident Aliens.
            And I think that’s exactly right. Resident aliens – that’s who we are, or at least who we are meant to be.
            We live out in the world but our true home is here in this house of mindfulness.
            We live out in the world but our true home is here in this colony of love, gratitude, forgiveness and generosity.
            We live out in the world but our true home is here in this colony of Christ’s kingdom – this colony of Christ’s kingdom right here on earth, right here in Madison.
            But, that’s not all.
            In Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon write, “The colony is God’s means of a major offensive against the world, for the world.”
            So, my fellow resident aliens, we come to the end of another church year and approach the end of the calendar year.
            It was a year that we look back on with mixed feelings.
            While the world drives itself nuts getting ready for what it calls Christmas, here we resident aliens prepare for the holy season of Advent – looking back to the humble birth of Christ the King and looking ahead to the new world yet to come.
            As a new year begins, let’s truly be a house of mindfulness and a colony of God’s resident aliens.
            As a new year begins, let’s be part of God’s major offensive against the world, for the world, by living mindfully, by serving the poor, by feeding the hungry, by wiping the tears of the mourners, by loving our enemies, by doing to others as we would have them do to us.
            Resident aliens of Grace Church, as a new year begins, let’s be part of God’s major offensive against the world, for the world, by moving out from our colony and going out there, helping to build the new world in which Christ is indeed the King.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

From Emptiness to Fulfillment

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 11, 2012

Year B: Proper 27 – The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
(Hebrews 9:24-28)
Mark 12:38-44
From Emptiness to Fulfillment
            Well, it’s been a rough couple of weeks.
            Nearly two weeks after the “super storm” hit, many of us are still reeling from the loss of life, property, business and electricity.
            Maybe more than anything else, though, the storm battered our sense of stability and security.
            We find ourselves living like so many people around the world, wondering – worrying - what’s next for us. We’re not sure if our homes and possessions are safe – or can ever be truly safe again.
            On the other hand, many of us have a renewed appreciation for the so-called simple things of life: flicking a light switch and a light actually comes on - pulling into a gas station without waiting for hours – finding cold leftovers in the fridge – calling friends and family on the phone – getting to know our neighbors.
            And it hasn’t only been the storm. We also had to endure the last few weeks of a truly dismal, and obscenely expensive, presidential election. Whatever you think of the final result, I think we’re all glad it’s over.
            All of this has left me drained – has left me feeling empty. Maybe you feel something similar. Over these past few days I’ve wondered and prayed about how to get from emptiness back to fulfillment.
            From emptiness to fulfillment.
            Today’s lessons are filled with people experiencing emptiness. But, unfortunately, only some of them are able to get from emptiness to fulfillment.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is teaching in the Jerusalem temple where he has some not very nice things to say about the scribes. Since we think of a scribe as simply a writer, Jesus’ indictment seems over the top. But, in those days scribes we’re actually lawyer-theologians – people with a good bit of power and prestige in that time and place.           
            Yet, all of that power and prestige doesn’t seem to be enough for them, does it? It seems that, like some of us, they had a sense of emptiness. But, unfortunately, the scribes tried to fill their emptiness in all the wrong ways.
            The scribes tried to fill their emptiness by puffing themselves up; by drawing attention to themselves and by accumulating wealth as they greedily swindled others.
            I’m sure it didn’t work. It never really works. Those things – those actions – don’t fill the emptiness. Jesus says that they will receive the greater condemnation. By trying to fill their emptiness at the expense of others the scribes have already condemned themselves.
            And then there is the poor widow. Actually, a better adjective would be destitute. In that time and place widows owned little or nothing themselves  - and were at the mercy of their families.
            At the temple, people deposited their coins into metal trumpet-shaped receptacles. So the clinking noise would have sounded all too clearly the size of one’s donation. Compared to the deep sound of the thick coins deposited by the rich, the poor widow’s little copper coins must have resonated as tinny and pathetic.
            Yet, Jesus points out that since she gave everything she had, the widow was the most generous of all.
            Notice, though, that Jesus doesn’t say he approves of what’s just happened at the treasury. In fact, the implication is that the widow has been taken advantage of by the corrupt religious establishment.
            And, actually, this passage isn’t so much about the widow – who, we could argue, was generous to a fault. No, this passage is mostly about the scribes, the religious leaders and the rich who tried to fill their emptiness in all the wrong ways, ending up condemned.
            So, we know what doesn’t work.
            But, how do we get from emptiness to fulfillment?
            Today’s Old Testament reading is from the Book of Ruth – a book that has a lot to say about moving from emptiness to fulfillment.
            Do you know the story?
            It begins with Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons leaving Bethlehem during a time of famine and going to Moab, a neighboring land on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.
            Both sons married local Moabite women but then both sons and Naomi’s husband, Elimelech died.
            Talk about emptiness! It seemed like Naomi had lost everything – she had lost her husband and her sons and was living in a foreign land. She understandably decides to return home to Bethlehem. Naomi urges her Moabite daughters-in-law to stay in their own country. But, one of the daughters-in-law, Ruth, in an act of extraordinary generosity, insists on accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem.
            In the best-known passage from the Book of Ruth, Ruth says to her mother-in-law: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
            Naomi reluctantly accepts Ruth’s generosity and together Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth make their way to Bethlehem.
            In Bethlehem the foreigner Ruth goes to a field where she takes advantage of the Israelite law that required farmers to leave part of their harvest for the poor, the aliens and the widows. Ruth, of course, is all three.
            Fortunately, she goes to a field belonging to a man named Boaz – who goes beyond the law by warmly welcoming her, protecting her and sharing his meal with her.
            As we heard in today’s lesson, Ruth and Boaz end up married and had a son, Obed, who will be the grandfather of King David.
            The Book of Ruth tells the story of going from emptiness to fulfillment. Naomi and Ruth had nothing and yet by the end of the story their lives are fuller than they could have ever imagined.
            How did it happen? How did Naomi and Ruth get from emptiness to fulfillment?
            Ruth could have stayed with her own people in Moab and yet she chose to stick with her mother-in-law.
            And it took some generosity for Naomi to accept Ruth’s love – to accept her help and loyalty. How many of us have trouble asking for or accepting help?
            Boaz could have just followed the letter of the law and simply allowed Ruth to gather the leftovers but instead he generously welcomes her into his home and into his life.
            And what was true long ago is just as true today.
            We’ll fail every time if, like the scribes, we try to fill our emptiness by just accumulating wealth and prestige – by trying to convince everyone how special and impressive we are. Instead, we simply condemn ourselves.
            But, we move from emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.
            Look at the generosity we’ve seen in the aftermath of the storm!
            As most of you know lifelong parishioner Don Van Court died on the Thursday after the storm. That morning, as the word got out, in the midst of toppled trees and downed power lines, so many neighbors – some of whom only knew Marge from seeing her walking her dog – offered help – charging phones, hauling over piles of firewood, sharing a generator, and bringing over a little care package of snacks and bottled water in a basket wrapped in cellophane.
            From emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.
            Yesterday some of us from Grace and other local Episcopal churches went to the Community Food Bank in Hillside where we and other volunteers packed over 500 emergency boxes of food for hurricane victims. It was the most fulfilled I’ve felt in weeks!
            And we’ve even seen some generosity of spirit in the days after the presidential election.
            In his concession speech, Governor Romney congratulated the president and his campaign and offered prayers especially for the president and his family.
            In his speech on election night, President Obama said this: “the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service, and that is a legacy that we applaud and honor tonight.”
            I know politicians are expected to say those kinds of things on election night. But, imagine if we had seen that kind of graciousness and generosity from both sides throughout the campaign. Imagine if our leaders behaved that way all the time! Imagine if we behaved that way all the time!
            From emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.
            These last few rough weeks may have left us feeling drained – may have left us with a sense of emptiness.
            But, we know the way from emptiness to fulfillment.
            It’s the way of Ruth generously giving herself to her mother-in-law Naomi. It’s Naomi accepting Ruth’s love and loyalty. It’s the way of Boaz who went beyond the law to welcome the stranger.
            We know the way from emptiness to fulfillment.
            It’s the way of a group of neighbors on the hill in Madison, who in the midst of devastation, generously reached out to a grieving neighbor.
            It’s the way of volunteers helping people we’ll never meet.
            We know the way from emptiness to fulfillment.
            On this Veterans Day we especially remember that it’s the way of men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for our safety and freedom.
            And, most of all, it’s the way of Jesus who gave away his life for us all – and calls us to give away our lives in loving service.
            From emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Spiritual Stewardship

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

Spiritual Stewardship

This month began with All Saints’ Day, when we recall and celebrate the holy women and men who strove to live faithfully and helped build the kingdom of God in their own times and places. Some of the saints are nearly anonymous, their exemplary lives and good works known to only a few people, or perhaps to God alone. Then there are the saints known by everyone – like St. Francis whose holy life we celebrate each October in a uniquely raucous service. And then there are the saints who fall somewhere in between. These are the people who were distinguished enough to be honored on our liturgical calendar but whose names are hardly well-known even in the most pious households. 

I remember one of my seminary professors suggesting that we should get to know the great Christian men and women of the past so well that we might come to think of them as our friends.  Although that seemed a little goofy to me at the time, over these past few years in the course of preparing homilies for weekday services I have made the acquaintance of some remarkable and inspiring saints. I’m not sure I think of them as friends, exactly, but some have definitely challenged me to live more faithfully and proclaim Christ more boldly.

One new acquaintance is Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), whose feast day was last month. In preparing my little homily on her life I learned that this remarkable woman taught English at Wellesley for decades while at the same time putting her deep Christian faith into action by standing beside the oppressed, insisting on pacifism and asking uncomfortable questions about our economic system. She challenged Christians to do more than offer charity to the poor. She confronted the powerful forces that made charity needed in the first place.

I was most impressed with what she had to say about prayer:

“Let us examine our prayers. How languid they are, how perfunctory, and alas! How often selfish! Sometimes one feels that men’s prayers must sadden God even more than their sins. Prayer is the deepest and surest measure of personality. As men pray, so they really are…A force more penetrating and powerful than gravitation or electricity is entrusted to us, and we are responsible for the steady use of it and its direction to the noblest ends.”

God has entrusted so much to our care! At this time of year when the Church tries to turns our attention to stewardship, we often reflect on, and take stock of, the material resources that we possess. And as Christians we are called to – in fact, expected – to give back to God by generously supporting the Church financially and through offering our time and talent.

But, God has not just given us material riches. We may not often realize it, but we have also been blessed with bottomless spiritual riches. Of course, we have been given Grace Church itself – our remarkable community through which God feeds us and provides us with opportunities to serve others in ways big and small but always profound.

Maybe most important, we have been given the gift – the power – of prayer, “a force more penetrating and powerful than gravitation or electricity.” Yet, I wonder how well we use this awesome power. Do we pray? And if we do, are our prayers selfish, more along the lines of letters to Santa than communication with the Source of Life? Do our prayers sadden God more than our sins?

At this time of year when we focus on stewardship, I’d like to challenge us all to increase our spiritual stewardship through a small, easy yet profound exercise. Each week when we come to church we get a copy of Grace Notes that’s jam-packed with information about upcoming programs and events. But, that’s not all. Grace Notes also includes the names of all those on our parish prayer list. These people – fellow parishioners, friends and relatives, total strangers – are all for a wide variety of reasons in need of our prayers.

So, here’s the challenge: let’s all take Grace Notes home after church on Sunday and pray for each person on the list every day of the week. It will take just a few minutes, but however we choose to do this – with a morning cup of coffee, while sitting on the train, before going to bed – we will be taking responsibility for the power God has given and directing our prayers to the noblest ends.

It’s very important to fill out our pledge cards and be as generous as possible. And it is at least as important to be good spiritual stewards, sharing our prayers for those in need.