Monthly Archives: January 2012

Calling All Heroes

Much thanks to Heather Lee for preaching the following sermon this past Sunday, January 15!

I’ve known my husband a long time, and the whole time I’ve known him, he has collected life lessons. There are quite a few of them now, but the first one, from before we were even married is this, “the hero is the guy who just wants to finish his beer and go home.”

I believe that this life lesson just might explain why Jonah is his favorite story in the bible. Because Jonah was a guy with a good job as a local prophet, when God called him out to do something extra ordinary. Something he really didn’t want to do. In fact, it took being vomited out of a fish for him to finally, grudgingly, do what God asked.

 So, being left with no choice, he proclaims destruction on Ninevah.

You will note, Jonah does not preach repentance. He does not evangelize.  He couldn’t care less about the Ninevites, he is just trying to finish the job so he can go home. And yet, through Jonah, the kindgom of God draws near. The Ninevites believe God, they believe this cranky disgruntled prophet of God and their instinctive response is towards sackcloth and ashes. Towards repentance.  And what happened? “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

I bet you didn’t know Jonah was a hero. Unless you’ve been cornered by my husband at coffee hour, you might never have considered a hero in quite that way. We tend to think of heroes as doers, as people in charge of a situation, people who get things done. People who solve problems. Heroes are people who know that “any minute now, I am going to be called to be more than I am.” Clark Kent, awkward reporter, Peter Parker, inept photographer. But at a moment’s notice, Superman. Spiderman. Hero.

The disciples are heroes of this sort. The sort that make mothers and fathers and spouses fear for their sanity. Jesus wanders along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and I imagine he says this to everyone he meets. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” I have to wonder if the gossip got ahead of him. “Some crazy man is walking along the beach looking for help netting people. I sure hope my kids don’t get any dumb ideas.”

What were Simon and Andrew thinking? Did Simon have a fight with his wife that morning? Was he already wondering, what if I just dropped this net and walked away?

What did Zebedee say to James and John, when they jumped out of the boat? Did he call after them, reminding them that this was their inheritance they were walking away from?

How did Simon and Andrew and James and John know that this minute was the minute they were being called to be more than they were?

How did they know, that this call was the call, the one worth walking away from what they had, what they knew, what they were? Like those fishermen, we are always facing choices that are bigger than we can really grasp at the time. Do I take that job? The one in a different state? Will it be good for my family? Will it change the world?

I believe we all want to change the world, we all want to do something that is bigger than ourselves, something that will leave a mark. That’s not the same as famous or popular or rich, although that is what it means for some people. I don’t want to be famous, but I’d still like to be a hero, even if I’m the only one who knows that I’ve done something heroic.

As Christians, we want to leave the world a better place than we found it, create a place that looks a little closer to the kingdom of God than we understood it, for people we know and for places we will never go. That’s what those fishermen did, even thought they had no idea, not in the moment, how it was all going to turn out. Still, somehow, by some faith, they knew they were being called to change the world.

Jesus is calling heroes. God is making heroes whether they want to or not. Are you already a hero? Or is there something holding you back? Is it the fear that you might have to leave everything behind? Do you believe being a hero is only possible if you go on a long perilous journey against your will or if you abandon your family to follow a man in strappy sandals?

Sometimes the most world changing thing we can do is stick around, to stay home, to keep on doing the right thing, the thing right in front of you, even if it’s boring, or frightening, or completely lacking in glamour and prestige. Sometimes staying in relationship with someone or something impossible is absolutely the most heroic thing anyone ever did. Sometimes, it’s letting someone go.

Sometimes the most heroic thing anyone can do is look at the present situation as though it were, in fact, part of the kingdom of God. It’s easy to say the future is going to be better, (or worse), than the present. It’s easy to look at the past, and imagine it could have been something else, it could have been perfect. It is often really difficult to look at the present and say, this is what it is, this is where I am, this is where God is doing great things. Even if we can’t see anything heroic about it.

This is what I think Jesus said to those fishermen. “Leave those fish for people who can only see fish. The kingdom of heaven has more than fish. I know you. I know you can see more than fish. Bring all that you are, all that you can see. It’s going to be more important and more useful than those fish.”

Jesus wasn’t looking for fishermen, because he wasn’t looking to catch some fish. He was and is looking for some visionaries, for some heroes – the kind who want to stay home and the kind who want to fly. He is looking for some people who can see the kingdom of God, and who can show other people, right in this present moment, that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent. Believe in the Good News. For the kingdom of God is here.

You talkin’ to me?

And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

One of my favorite books is Tattoos on the Heart.  The author is Fr. Gregory Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles to provide a whole lot of life-giving opportunities to gang-involved youth. The book is inspiring and poignant, and so funny in parts it makes you laugh out loud. One of those parts—at least for me—is when Fr. Boyle—whom everyone calls “G”—meets with a young man for an initial intake conversation. It’s just the two of them in G’s simple office and he starts out by asking the young man:

“How old are you?”

The guy answers: “Me?”

“Well, yes, you,” answers G. There’s no one else there.

“Oh, I’m eighteen.”

Then G asks: “Do you have a driver’s license?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

This story of Fr. Boyle trying to start a conversation with this particular homeboy reminds me of today’s story of God trying to start a conversation with Samuel. The difference is that that Samuel knows someone is talking to him, but he doesn’t know who.

Both stories—the one from Tattoos on the Heart and the one from Samuel—capture a thread running through all of our lessons today: We don’t always understand the implications of being in relationship with God, a relationship spelled out so beautifully in Psalm 139. You trace my journeys and my resting places/and are acquainted with all my ways…You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Nathanael is a good example of someone who doesn’t entirely understand how God is speaking to him, or what it all means. Nathanael is completely captivated by Jesus’ having recognized him from an earlier encounter under a fig tree. There’s more too it than that, Jesus says.

And there’s a lot more I could say about Jesus and Nathanael from this morning’s gospel, but then I would just be avoiding the reading we just heard from the Letter to the Corinthians.

We enter a conversation already in progress, between the good people of Corinth and the Apostle Paul, in which Paul has some choice words for his readers:

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body, he writes. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shun fornication! Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you….you are not your own.

These were not popular sentiments at the time of Paul’s writing, and I’m guessing they’re not popular sentiments now.

The city of Corinth was known as a licentious place, a bustling seaport full of people trading in money and power. In the city there was a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the ancient Greek God of healing and medicine. But the Corinthian version of this temple had a reputation for functioning more like the spa at an exclusive country club than a temple, and people who frequented it were used to having their own way in style and comfort, meeting their bodily needs at the expense of slaves and prostitutes.

Many of the Christians in Corinth understood that being Christian meant that they could continue to do whatever they pleased with their bodies, because all that mattered was their spirit. Their soul belonged to God, while their body belonged to them, to do with whatever they wished. Right? By no means! Our bodies are members of Christ, and are not our own. Our bodies belong to God because our whole self belongs to God. Remember the psalm? You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb

For centuries, we have assumed that basically our identity as sexual beings, with physical bodies, is something that we should split off, separate from our lives with God. What Paul says here is that as people who strive to live in union with God with our whole selves—which is the only way to be in union with God—our sexuality is as important as any other aspect of who we are, more important even. The moral teaching here is not about the evils of sex, but rather that our sexual ethics must reflect our relationship with God. The word translated in this passage as body is soma, which actually means the whole self, body and soul. The body is not something we have, but something we are. This is why the Body of Christ is such a rich and multilayered metaphor. When we separate body and soul, we often don’t care for our bodies in the same way as when we see ourselves as body and spirit, body and soul.

When Paul writes about the evils of fornication, and uses the example of union with a prostituted woman, he is not calling her evil, but rather saying that physical relationships that do not include a whole, spiritual union, take us away from relationship with God.

We were bought with a price, Paul says, and God dwells within us. God is present in all of our encounters, not just the ones that we might think are appropriately holy. In order to be the body of Christ, the church, we need to think of all of our relationships as spiritual union, and shun relationships to which we cannot bring our whole selves.

All of our relationships? Really?

I had an experience the other day, a minor thing that I hope helps to illustrate what I’m talking about. I was driving around on the West side where I always get lost, looking for an Office Depot. By the time I found it, I was tired and hungry and disappointed that they didn’t have everything I wanted. I was checking out, paying for the things I did find, and I was really not nice to the guy behind the counter. I know some priests who I just know are nice all the time and I really wish I were one of them.

Then suddenly, in the last 30 or 40 seconds of our transaction, by some miracle of God’s grace I saw myself from the perspective of the guy behind the counter, I thought a little bit about his job, and I thought: I can do better than this. I made eye contact, I smiled, I thanked him for his help, and I told him to have a great day. I’m not saying this to point out how great I am, but because later when I was reflecting on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I kept thinking about that guy at Office Depot and how, as brief as it was, I had a relationship with him, and I needed to bring my whole self to that relationship. Not just my credit card and my crabbiness. When I was able to make that little shift, I could feel for a moment that the Holy Spirit was indeed dwelling within me, just like the Good Book says.

*

            Samuel said “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Sometimes I think we are more like the young man in Tattoos of the Heart who says “who, me?” We don’t think that we are candidates for God’s grace, for hope, for union with the Holy. But we are. We are the ones God speaks to. We are the ones God wants. Each one of us, with all of our whole selves.

Random Orchids

Enough of serious posts like sermons and other deep theological reflections. Ponder this random orchid instead. Held by Matt. Matt who is on the altar guild at St. David’s. Matt who lends his wisdom, his grace, his good humor and his height to the deeply spiritual and deeply mundane tasks of preparing our space for worship. Matt who has that great gift so many of us envy, of being deeply serious and deeply unserious at one and the same time. Perhaps it’s the orchid that does that to a person.

Let there be light

God said, “Let there be light.” God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

This is the season for light.

I was at a diocesan committee meeting last Thursday at another Episcopal Church. Our group likes to think that we do some important work in the diocese, and we have been trying to create a better atmosphere in the room where we meet. So each month someone brings something nice to eat, and we take turns creating some intentional time for opening prayer. Thursday, I brought some candles, thinking that would make the space more conducive to our work. But I forgot the matches. I asked the person in the church office if she had any, and she said oh, no, you’re not allowed to light candles. No candles in the church? I checked in with the priest, who said oh, go ahead, of course you can light candles. Then he asked his parish secretary to call the diocesan insurance administrator. She did, and I learned something new: it’s okay to use candles for liturgical purposes, but not decorative purposes. So now you know.

What followed in our group was a lot of raucous conversation about what passes for liturgical versus decorative when it comes to candles. We concluded that any meal, anywhere, was a liturgical occasion, as was any kind of meeting that includes prayer, and some meetings that don’t include prayer. And so on.

This is the season for light.

At our 12th night party we heard the Epiphany story of the wise men following the star, which miraculously stopped to shine its light over the town where the Christ child lay. Light led them to Light. As we prepared for the party I put out a call for Epiphany poems. What was amazing to me was how dark many of them were, poems about fear and angst and longing.

There’s W.H. Auden’s “Christmas Oratorio”:

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.

And T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”:

Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

This time of year is never easy to navigate, even for the three wise men. And even though the days are getting longer and Christmas is over and past, this is still a dark time of year.

This is the season for light.

There is perhaps no light brighter, no light more important, than the light I cannot help but imagine accompanied the Spirit descending like a dove at Jesus’ baptism. If light could talk, I think it would say something like “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Those words mark Jesus’ anointing: he is God’s beloved, God is well pleased with him, and he and God have work to do.

So at our baptism, the light of Christ, the light of God’s Spirit comes into our lives and hopefully we, too, hear the voice of the Holy One saying to each of us: You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased. And, with God, through the example of Jesus and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we, too, have work to do. In a dark world, we are to bear light and to be light.

What is this work, and how do we do it? How are we to be light? How are we to bear light? The work for which we are anointed is to continue the ministry of Jesus as proclaimers of good news, peacemakers, reconcilers, and healers, as people who break bread together and pray together. In a few minutes, we’ll renew our baptismal covenant, our condensed version of the playbook for being a Christian.

When we follow Jesus through the waters of Baptism, we promise to follow him in very specific ways which we reaffirm each time we renew our baptismal promises. This is how we live out our anointing to God’s mission, our belovedness.

Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized. He does it anyway. He does it in order to lead the way into and through the baptismal life, so that we, too, might see the heavens open, and know that we, too, are God’s beloved.

This is the season for Light.

There’s a beautiful Christmas collect which we didn’t pray this year because the Feast of the Holy Name fell on a Sunday, but it’s worth praying, and it goes like this:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.

This new light is with us whether or not we are faithful at every moment, whether or not we feel enveloped by the darkness of fear or loneliness or cynicism, whether or not we feel God’s presence. We all know what it’s like not to feel God’s presence: when we yell at our kids or think bad thoughts about the person in line at the grocery store or otherwise fail to live up to God’s call to us as followers of Jesus. It makes no difference. We are God’s beloved. As a friend recently wrote to me: light is light.

God said, “Let there be light,” God separated the light from the darkness, and God saw that the light was good.