Monthly Archives: August 2010

Finding our place

God of all power and might, increase in us true religion.

Increase in us true religion. The R-word. Religion. The word everybody loves to hate. I’m spiritual, not religious. Have you ever heard that? Have you ever said it? We live in a spiritual but not religious universe, a universe where the good news is that more and more people acknowledge the spirit as an important part of who they are. That’s the good news. The bad news is that over time—especially the past 800 years or so—religion has gotten a bad name.

Religion is associated with structures that degrade our humanity, structures that abuse hierarchy and power in order to shame people into thinking they are bad people, that they must submit to that same power and hierarchy in order to get good. Religion has gotten a bad name because it is associated with expressions of personal piety that sometimes come across as personal superiority. We all know people like this. Religion has gotten a bad name because of what writer Brian McLaren calls “the gospel of sin management.” By this he means the teaching that says the whole purpose of following Jesus is to be sure that we keep out of hell.

I have a few things to say in defense of religion. The word religion comes from the same root as the word “rule,” as in, a ruler, something you measure with. People in monastic traditions talk about a rule of life. Such a rule is a guide, like a yardstick, alongside which we can structure of our day, our week, and our lives. Anyone can have a rule of life—you don’t have to be a monk. A rule of life is especially good for someone like me who otherwise might have very little self-discipline.

I follow—to the best of my human ability—a rule of life that says I will pray the daily office from the book of common prayer, I’ll part-take in the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and on major feasts, I’ll make a sacramental confession in Advent and Lent, I’ll always be engaged in some form of study, and that when my paycheck arrives, the first check I write is to my church for ten percent of the amount of the check. This rule, this religion, is necessary not because I’m such a spiritual person, but because I’m so human. Without some kind of rule of life, I’d be out there fighting my way to the head of the table every single time.

Religion—which I loosely define as practices we undertake to keep ourselves in line with God’s great love for us—is all about how we behave in relationship to our brothers and sisters in the world around us. And this is what today’s gospel is all about.

Today’s gospel uses Jesus’ very favorite setting to teach us about true religion: a dinner party. How we eat and drink, and with whom, has always been a huge matter of concern to the people of God throughout the vast sweep of history. There is Eve’s first bite of the forbidden fruit. There is Abraham’s hospitality to his holy visitors. There are the hundreds of dietary laws set down in the book of Leviticus. There is Jesus, eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts. And there are the earliest Jewish Christians who spent most of the first century worrying about whether they could share meals with Gentile Christians and still be faithful to the God of their ancestors.

Of all the evangelists, Luke pays particular attention to this issue: hospitality and sharing meals was as much a part of Jewish life in first century Palestine as it is in our lives today. Luke describes ten separate meals in his version of the story of Jesus. Mealtime was Jesus’ teaching moment. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has something to say to dinner guests, and something to say to dinner hosts.

To the guests he says: stop jockeying for position, and take the lowest place. You are not in charge of your station in life. In God’s eyes, everyone is equal. Your job is to humble yourself.

In this, as in so much, Jesus turns the social order on its head, and challenges any assumptions we may have about our place in the world. Few of us ever let go of these assumptions completely.

Jesus has something to say to dinner hosts. When you have a dinner party, do not invite the usual suspects: friends, family, neighbors. Invite the uninvited. In the Gospel, the uninvited are the poor, the maimed, the outcast. In Acts, the uninvited are the Gentiles, the foreigner. Jesus included among his inner circle of followers people who would not normally be on anyone’s guest list. This tells us something about the kind of community to which God calls us.

It is only by sitting at the lowest place at the table that we learn that God’s love has nothing to do with our rank or station in life. It is only by inviting the uninvited into our fellowship that we learn that God’s love does not recognize the divisions that we see.

All of Jesus’ dinner party stories have as much to say to religious institutions as they do to individuals. As a parish, what ought our true religion be when it comes to table manners? What is our corporate rule of life when it comes to where we sit and whom we invite? What might the lowest place at the table look like at St. David’s? Who are the uninvited that we need to invite into our midst?

It is of course no coincidence that Jesus’ last gift to us was at table. He took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread, and shared it, and asked us to do the same. Our table ritual of bread and wine is at the heart of all that we do. As we prepare for this ancient religious dinner party, let us give thanks for God’s undiscriminating love, and let us celebrate.

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Sabbath

Many thanks to Heather Lee, who preached this sermon on August 22, 2010.

About 10 years ago, I came back to church. When I told family and friends about this, I got all sorts of responses. A strong theme seemed to emerge. Christians can’t do an awful lot, and they can’t do anything on Sunday.

“Can you say that word?”

“Aren’t you supposed to pray before you eat?”

“Well, it was on a Sunday, and I know you only go to church on the Sabbath.”

To be fair, the church told me plenty of things about how to fit in and what we didn’t do on the Sabbath as well.

“We will seat you between the collect and the first lesson.”

“Acolytes cannot wear flip flops and their shirts must never show above their vestments.”

Please come back tomorrow, the person who handles our assistance program is not here on Sunday.”

All of these examples speak to our assumptions about the Sabbath. One I expect every one of us shares is – Go to church on Sunday morning. And as glad as I am to see all of you, it doesn’t really answer the Sabbath’s most pertinent question.

Why are we here?

The gospel lesson this morning offers two explanations for why we are here and what the Sabbath is all about.

In it, we find Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. This is something he doesn’t do very often. It’s sort of like being a guest preacher in church on a Sunday. And in comes a woman who is not really socially acceptable. Maybe she comes every Sunday, sneaking into the back pew and leaving early. Maybe she just came because she heard Jesus was going to be there. And Jesus, who isn’t a regular, who isn’t doing his regular Sabbath routine, notices her. He notices a woman, a woman who is in pain, and he is moved by his compassion for her suffering to walk right up to her and heal her. “Be healed, be forgiven, be loved.”

And she was.

And maybe she started dancing and clapping her hands and singing.

And maybe she wanted to join the vestry and the altar guild and the healing ministry team and all those other things we say we want to happen for a visitor in our church on a Sunday morning.

I want that. I have been relieved from suffering on a Sunday morning and I want everyone to feel that at least once in their lives.

But I have been coming to church for a long time now, and I think I know how that synagogue leader feels, too.

I’ve been exhausted at the end of a very long week and just wanted some peace and quiet – someplace to pray where I don’t have to think to hard about it.

I’ve been annoyed by contemporary music during a Rite 1 service.

I’ve been angry at God for the ability of an outsider to see and to fix things that I can’t see or I can’t fix.

I’ve been laughed at and shamed for being totally wrong.

And I’ve noticed this happens in the gospels a lot. We do the right thing and Jesus tells up we have it totally wrong.

Jesus doesn’t do this because the Pharisees and the synagogue leaders are bad people. He does it because they are, in fact, hypocrites. They have forgotten that there is a

WHY WE ARE HERE to go with the HOW WE DO THINGS.

Jesus isn’t mad at them for keeping the Sabbath, he is angry because they have forgotten why we have one.

Now, I am fairly certain that in my library at seminary there is a right answer for the question ‘Why is there a Sabbath?’ Unfortunately, I left all those books in Berkeley. But that’s ok, because I think Isaiah gives us the answer.

“If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your OWN interests on my holy day,” says the Lord, “then you shall take delight in the Lord and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.”

Which sounds to me like perspective. The Sabbath offers us perspective. It reminds us that we are lovers of God and why we are followers of Christ all the other days of the week. Which is the exact opposite of a break from being lovers of God and followers of Christ. And we have a choice of what to do with that perspective. We can apologize for the last six days, or we can get some perspective in preparation for the next six days.

We can practice Sabbath through our fear. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, we can be like Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai – too scared to climb the mountain, too afraid to be vulnerable before God and accept God’s miraculous healing. We can learn to be complacent about the things we cannot change.

Or we can watch out for the things we can. Instead of cowering at the base of Mt. Sinai, we can climb Mt. Zion. We can be like the woman, stooped over but willing to take a chance. We can be like the crowd, witnessing a miraculous change in the life of our neighbor. We can be like Jesus, empowered to reach out and heal all that is within our power to heal. Mt. Zion, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, has a party going on. And it sounds like a marvelous place to gain perspective.

It sounds like a place, where maybe there is dancing and clapping and singing and all those things we say we want to happen on a Sunday morning.

Hot Church

Give us grace, O God, to follow daily in the most blessed steps of Jesus.

Sometimes, following in Jesus steps is easier than other times. Sometimes Jesus makes following him look easy, and sometimes, not so much. I think today’s gospel is one of those “not so much” Sundays.

When we started the Peace Mass last May, our promotional material talked about how any given saint we might celebrate during that weekday service could be described as a peacemaking saint, and how all the saints, like all of us, are followers of the Prince of Peace. In that service we pray for peace in our hearts, peace in the lives of those we love, and peace in the world. We have many groups sharing our space here at St. David’s who are peacemakers, and peacemaking is part of our ministry as Christians. This morning’s gospel makes us think again about what it means to follow the Prince of Peace.

In the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, we find one of my very favorite canticles, the Song of Zechariah, also known as the Benedictus. In this canticle Luke says that Jesus “will guide our feet into the way of peace.” At the very end of Luke’s gospel, when the resurrected Jesus appears before his disciples, they think they’ve seen a ghost. To calm their fears, he says “Peace be with you.”

Many people who say morning or evening prayer throughout the Anglican Communion say those words from the Song of Zechariah, about Jesus guiding our feet into the way of peace, every single day. And in our Eucharist, sometimes I worry that we have said “Peace be with you” so often and for so long that we have forgotten what it means. We think it means “Good morning” or “Nice to see you.”

Who is this Jesus who says Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

This Jesus is a man on a mission. He is traveling with some urgency to Jerusalem, to his trial and death. I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Jesus anticipates the coming of the Holy Spirit who will baptize each of us with fire, baptism from the inside out, that we might join God in turning the world inside out and upside down. Jesus’ mission while he’s still alive in the flesh is to keep telling and showing his followers what the world could look like if we worked with God to bring about the reign of God.

The work of following Jesus is rarely easy work. Just as the life of faith is characterized by times of doubt, the work of peacemaking is always tinged with division. The work of discipleship is full of decision points. Jesus calls his disciples over and over again to be incisive, decisive, and, according to today’s gospel, divisive.

To be divisive is not necessarily to instigate division or conflict, but rather to be willing to dissent or to take a new path. In ancient Israel, the unit of society most representative of the status quo was the household. This is the reason Jesus uses the language of household—father against son, mother against daughter—to make his point that carrying on God’s mission of reconciliation, includes choices that might change the nature of the household, and that not everyone in the household will support.

A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in Eugene and I passed a community church with a reader board that said simply “Lukewarm Church.” I have no idea what the intention was, other than to make people like me think: “Wow! I’d like to go hear what the pastor was thinking when he posted that message!”

The metaphor of temperature may be a good one for our life as a community of followers of Jesus.

We’ve all been in churches that have felt cold, right? The music is stiff, the people greet only their friends, children are shushed, and one often gets the impression that such churches like themselves the way they are and are committed above all else to staying exactly the way they are.

I imagine “lukewarm church” to be church where the community’s most closely-held value is lack of conflict. Choices are made with a view toward upsetting the least number of people. In very small communities, a new idea is often squelched because it might upset even one person. I think we all know churches like that.

There was a wonderful opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Friday titled “the perils of ‘wannabe cool’ Christianity.” The gist of the piece was that young people in the evangelical church are actually much more interested in Jesus than in the latest cutting edge technology or shocking language. While churches trying to be “cool” may be more intentional than churches that are cold or lukewarm, the intention itself can distract from the challenging work of following Jesus.

So continuing with the temperature metaphor, what is a hot church? Today’s gospel tells us that a healthy Christian community is not a community in which there is no division, but a community in which conflict is expected, and incorporated into how that community functions as a group of Christians. A “hot church” is a church where the Holy Spirit is running wild and setting hearts on fire with the same kind of zeal that Jesus has for his mission of healing and reconciliation. Friction is almost always necessary to start fires, after all. A “hot church” is a church willing to be uncomfortable in order to be faithful. A “hot church” is a church that is impatient to show forth God’s peace plan of mercy, compassion, and justice.

AThere’s a difference between the peace of the lukewarm church and the peace that Jesus is in fact the Prince of. When Jesus says he has not come to bring peace but rather division, he makes a distinction between being nice, not rocking the boat, maintaining the status quo—and the peace of God which comes when disciples work to make the world we live in look like the kingdom Jesus preached about.

Next time you exchange the peace with someone—this very morning, perhaps 🙂 –when you say “Peace be with you” or “the Peace of the Lord be always with you,” remember that the this simple, sacramental act which we do week after week after week is the way that we affirm with one another that we followers of Jesus long for the peace of God.

I close with the words from a wonderful old hymn:

The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing–
the marvelous peace of God.

Stories from a week of art camp in Haiti

This post is from St. David’s parishioner Emily Jameson who recently travelled to Haiti.

I want to extend my heart-felt thanks to you for supporting me on this trip financially, and with your prayers, good wishes and encouragement.  It was a wonderful trip, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to be there working with the children.  Our team of BuildaBridge artists put together an Art Camp for kids ages 10 – 14 in the city of Pont Sonde, a few hours north of Port au Prince.  Another team of artists worked in an orphanage outside of Port au Prince creating a mural with the children there.

Even though the earthquake did not directly affect most of the children in our art camp, it is fair to say that the “after-shocks” of this disaster have permeated all of Haiti.  Some children in our Art Camp had been sent away from Port au Prince by their families to live with their rural relatives.  And in truth, life in Haiti has been hard for a really long time, so a project like this was a welcome diversion for the children we worked with.

I was fortunate to have a translator for the week, which helped to ensure the success of my class.  I worked with a few young Haitians as well in my class, and this gave us an opportunity to work incollaboration with local Haitian teachers and artists, which was mutually beneficial.  We were able to elevate the use of the arts – dance, music, poetry, storytelling and visual arts – to engage the children and to provide opportunities to reinforce lessons of Hope and creative, therapeutic play.

Haiti is a storytelling culture, so using stories and engaging the students into the art and form of stories was a natural fit.  I was fortunate to find a book at Powell’s that had both English and Creole translations.  It told the story of a little Haitian boy who experienced slavery, but demonstrated a strong, resilient spirit, and used a song to encourage and strengthen his spirit when he felt sad.  This was a great way to reinforce aspects of Haitian culture and history and to highlight the parallels for the children between the ways that the boy in the story stayed strong through trials, and how they could do the same.

Each day we focused on different aspects of Hope.  I tried to tell them a story that correlated with that each day, and I found Aesop’s fables to be particularly useful.  These stories commonly use animals as the key characters, and I find those to be universally understood.  One day I told them the story of the Mouse & the Lion – proverb being that “even small creatures can be important.”  We then used a metaphor of trees to talk about life and how to be strong in the face of adversity.  I encouraged the students to talk about the things in life that helped them to be strong and to not “fall over” when hard times came. Using these metaphors from the natural world made it easy to emphasize the teaching moments for Hope, the theme of our work there.

The following day, we discussed the importance of persistence in fulfilling goals, supported by the fable of the persistent and thirsty Crow that patiently dropped little pebbles into a pitcher of water until the water-level rose sufficiently for the crow to drink.  Having a “future-orientation” is a vital aspect of Hope and trauma therapy.  We talked about ourselves and our future goals, some of the children’s goals were to be an engineer, hairstylist, and motorcycle driver (from a 10 year old girl!).  And then we talked about what things the kids needed to do now in order to achieve their future dreams.   All in all, this was a fun experience, and one that I found the children to really engage in.

When I put the children into groups to create their own stories this ended up being more of a challenge.  I realized that they are not accustomed to a lot of free-play and creative time in their education system.  And most of the stories that were supposed to be “hopeful” tended to end with all of the characters dying.  This is where I came to learn a lot about the role and function of storytelling in Haiti, and many Afro-centric cultures.

Put simply, life is hard.  That is a given.  People understand this, and don’t try to protect their children from that fact.  After discussing my observation with my friend Joe, he pointed out that it really wasn’t until the Victorian Era that people felt the need to create these “happily ever after” schemes to protect their children from reality.   Telling stories that are sort of tragicomedies teaches a helpful truth that bad things do happen, yet in front of that backdrop each story would have a teaching element – a lesson to be learned, or a situation to laugh at.  Tales of foolish actions serve to teach kids what not to do without sounding punitive or harsh.  Actually this is a prime example of the functional place of stories and their use in teaching cultural norms and mores.

When I asked one group if someone who was struggling or having a hard time would feel better after hearing one of these stories where “everybody dies”, they replied “YES!  Because its funny!!” – in a way that implied “obviously!” After hearing their story again, I had to agree.  It was funny, and there were important lessons to be learned.  This story about three brothers taught three important lessons. 1) don’t be greedy, 2) don’t laugh at other’s misfortune, and 3) don’t be in such a rush to spread gossip- with the implication that bad behavior such as this can result in undesirable consequences.

I am including in my blog some “snapshots” of Haiti – which are short stories that can provide you more of a glimpse of some of my experiences and things that I noticed while I was there.  Please feel free to visit www.narrativastories.blogspot.com for more.  There is so much to tell, and I hope to have opportunities to meet with each of you individually over the next few months to share more about my trip.

Thank you for being invested in this trip, in Haiti, and in my well-being.

With gratitude,

Emily