Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Green Tablecloth

This week has been a week of–among other things–two unexpected gifts.

The first was a practically new green damask tablecloth which a thoughtful and generous person handed to me at the church door on Sunday. She knew we needed round tablecloths for special occasions and had one she wasn’t using.

The second gift was a conversation in Wednesday’s “Bible 101” class. We talked about ways to read the bible, and I introduced folks to the Daily Office Lectionary and the Mission St. Clare app. We talked about the challenges of adding new disciplines–let alone new small group bible discussions–to already-packed schedules, and how those challenges conflict with the longing to connect….connect with the biblical text and connect with others on the same journey.

Someone in the conversation said: “What if anyone who wanted to could gather at a particular table during coffee hour each Sunday to talk about their experience of the daily lectionary that week?” And so the Green Tablecloth was born of these two gifts, a tablecloth and a conversation. Look for the table this Sunday, and share your hopes for an Advent-born discipline of daily scripture reading. ‘Tis the season in the church year, after all, for new year’s resolutions.


Belonging to the Truth

Here’s Linda Goertz’ fine sermon on the Feast of Christ the King. Thank you, Linda!

My kingdom is not from this world.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before we plunge into Advent; but before we turn to that new liturgical year, today’s gospel visits the days before the crucifixion, with Jesus and Pilate having a conversation about whether Jesus qualifies as a king.  Now, I’m guessing that none of us 21st century North Americans have a real grasp of what being a king was really like back then — possibly because most of our contemporary leaders at least put up a show of not requiring you to grovel before them, and aren’t quite so likely to order your death as a whim.

Being a king at any time, though, means having authority, often enforced by military might, and it means having power over others through strategy and manipulation.  Plus a little dose of belonging to the right family at the right time.  And a topping of wealth and grandeur, a little bowing and scraping when you come in the room.  None of that sounds like Jesus, does it?  Jesus says, I’m not that kind of king; it’s not that kind of kingdom.

This actually reminds me of the Grimm’s folk tale called “The Fisherman and His Wife.”  You probably remember reading it – it’s the one about the really poor fisherman who catches a fish but it’s a talking fish and it begs for its freedom, so he lets it go.  But his wife thinks he should have made a wish first, so she sends him back to ask for a little cottage instead of the miserable shack they’ve been living in – and they get it!  But after a while, she’s still dissatisfied, so she sends her husband back to ask for a castle instead; and after a while that gives her the idea she should be King; and after that Emperor; and then the even more powerful Pope!  And every time the fish grants the wish.  But when she finally decides she wants to be able to tell the sun and moon to rise and set and asks to be “like unto God,” the fish takes it all away and they end up back in the shack.

Years ago, when some friends and I performed this in an evening of story theatre, our one set piece was an old wooden ladder that we crouched under when we lived in the shack – and then with each successive aggrandizement I (playing the fishwife) would move higher and higher up on the ladder, reaching for more grandiosity, more wealth, more adulation from the servants and middlemen.  Until the fish (an ancient symbol of Christianity, by the way) puts an end to those delusions.

Now back to Pilate and Jesus.  Pilate, the Roman prefect for Judea, is in a tricky political situation.  He can’t just antagonize the Jewish population that Rome has sent him to “manage,” yet their religious leaders are clearly trying to manipulate Pilate into condemning Jesus to death.  They say they can’t pass a death sentence themselves, but by representing Jesus as wanting to be king in Judea, they suggest he’s a powerful political threat to Rome – a potential terrorist, if you will, deserving execution.  That’s why Pilate wants to find out if Jesus is a king, so he’ll know what to do with him.

But Jesus’ authority doesn’t have anything to do with military might or influence or familial power or glory or fancy regalia.  Or even, shockingly, with money.  Jesus says his kingdom is not from this world.  Notice that he doesn’t imply he’s not living in our flesh-and-blood, dusty-road, everyday world – but that the place from which he takes authority isn’t that world, doesn’t accept that world’s values.  It’s as if he takes the ladder the fishwife was climbing and says, “I have no need to clamber up this thing.  I’m going to stay right here, on the level, grounded where I am” — as T.S. Eliot says, “the still point of the turning world.”

And how do we recognize Jesus’ kingdom?  Jesus says his kingdom is the place where truth is told and listened to.  Truth.  We hear and see so many lies every day – media advertisements blaring and popping up on our screens, the posturing of so-called “reality” TV, the cynicism and spin of our political battles – but when do we hear someone testifying to what we know deep-down is the truth?

If you’re lucky, you have at least a few friends who know how to tell you the truth.  We need that; we need folks we don’t have to pretend with.  No matter how much frantic rationalization we spin, those friends are the ones who can say, “That’s a bunch of B.S., honey,” or, “Come off it; you’re better than that.”  Or they say, “Don’t listen to those nay-sayers; you’re fabulous, you know that.”  They say, “Oh, you’d be great at that!” or, “Man, that’s just not right – let’s do something to change it.”  If they say, “I love you” – or even the more restrained, “Nah, you’re OK,” you know it’s real.

That’s what Jesus is talking about: helping us “belong to the truth.”  The real, deep, bedrock truth.  What we hunger for.  Amid all the world’s messages claiming we need to buy more or climb higher or work even harder-harder-harder, Jesus tells us the truth about ourselves and about God.

Poor Pilate.  In the verse immediately following our Gospel, he famously asks, “What is truth?”  Maybe he meant it, or maybe he was being hipster-cynical, not going to believe in anything uncool.  But truth doesn’t worry about being cool or uncool.  The truth is that our Creator made us out of love, sustains us with the Spirit that will never abandon us.  The truth is that we are surrounded and grounded and walking in God’s delight and power and celebration.

We have everything we need; we belong to the truth; we are given this amazing life to care for others, to create beauty and justice, to sink ever more deeply into the presence of the Holy One who is within us and among us.

Jesus says his kingdom isn’t from this world, but his kingship sends us to the world.  As we are built up and strengthened by walking with Jesus and by supporting one another here in this place, we learn the wisdom and the courage to reach out and help our brothers and sisters in need.  They’re out there being buffeted by the forces of greed and violence and pain and exploitation; stuck clinging to a broken ladder that promised everything and delivered nothing; lonely and uncared-for.  Following our King doesn’t mean staying inside a private churchy kingdom.  It means opening our borders, going out and working to make things right, telling the truth even when most of the world seems deaf.  Where do you hear the world calling?  What’s the need that breaks your heart?  That may just be where Christ the King is sending you.

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Let’s listen, together.

More trouble in Congo

Our friend and sometime parishioner Sarah Gaither writes during this Thanksgiving week to ask for prayers for her friends in Congo. Here is what she says: 

The immediate story is that there was three days of intense fighting and violence in a city called Goma, about 2 hours from where I was.  Today we found out the rebel group called M23 has taken the city and are planning to head south (through Beni, where I was) to another influential town called Bukavu. Their ultimate intention is to take the capital of Kinshasa.
These rebels are a mix of defected Congolese soldiers and policemen, Rwandese displaced soldiers, and civilians (some young boys) cruelly intimidated into joining.  They are largely organized and outfitted by Rwanda, who is largely financed by the US, in terms of mineral trade and export.
I now have several teacher-friends who were forced to flee Goma into Rwanda and are displaced there, awaiting peace to head back to Beni.  Also, several students from the school have received word that their family members were taken by the rebels, forced to join their ranks.  There were texts being sent as friends were hiding under beds.  Messy, scary stuff.
Today has been a bit more back to normal, however now the political control belongs to the rebels and we know their next steps will not be for peace.
I have attached a few links. Please join me in prayer!

Enormous changes at the last minute (or sooner)

This must take place, but the end is still to come….This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

I don’t know anyone who really likes change. Do you? Anyone here love change? We bristle against it in all its forms. And yet, it is all around us. I keep hearing the David Bowie song that played on the AM radio station that was my alarm clock every morning when I was a kid: ch-ch-ch-changes…

Change is not always a bad thing. Today’s lesson from the Hebrew bible is the lovely story of Hannah and her devoted husband Elkanah. Hannah is barren and desperately wants a child, in spite of the fact that her husband assures her that he loves her best of all his wives even if she can’t bear him a son. But Hannah is miserable. Finally, well past the age of child-bearing, God hears her prayers and she has a son, Samuel, who—no surprise—grows up to be someone important.

What is even more important than Samuel in this story—in my humble opinion—is Hannah’s response, which we said this morning in place of a psalm. Hannah sings of God’s surprising grace, which she links to a whole bunch of other changes:

Those who were hungry are fat with spoil
God raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts up the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor

What does this remind you of? It reminds me of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which we will read five Sundays from now. (Unless of course you choose to read it every day as part of your Advent devotion, which I highly recommend.). Like Hannah, Mary extrapolates from the miracle of conception all of God’s other miracles, miracles of social order turned upside down, miracles of enormous change. There’s that word again: Change.

The short version of my own faith story goes something like this: In my early twenties, I had some experiences that made it easy to believe the whole Christian story of failure and suffering followed by resurrection to new life. This is what happens to Hannah and Mary, each in her own way. The miracle of God choosing them, in their low estate, to be the bearer of world-changing life, makes them think: If God is doing this for me, then God must be doing this for the whole world, turning the world upside down. Turning the world into the Kingdom of God.

There’s a short story by Grace Paley, called “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.” Enormous changes at the last minute is what today’s gospel is about.

The portion of Mark’s gospel that we heard this morning is called “the little apocalypse.” Apocalyptic literature, as you know, is writing about enormous, total, cataclysmic change. Not just end times, but end times in Technicolor. Wars, insurrection, earthquakes, the birthpangs of the transformation of the world. At the time this was written, people expected Jesus to come back from the dead and bring about the new world order that occupied his preaching. The end of the world as we know it. That didn’t happen—at least, not yet—but the first hearers of this morning’s gospel would have been bracing themselves for enormous changes—enormous!—at the last minute. They didn’t understand that these cataclysmic changes were not so different from what Hannah sings about in her celebration of the birth of Samuel, or what Mary sings about in her celebration of God’s word growing inside of her. Enormous changes. God’s promises coming true.

Change is what God does. God may be eternally changeless, and there is a lovely prayer in our prayer book about those who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life resting in God’s eternal changelessness.  But the work of God is not to keep everything else the same. The eternally changeless one is the great change agent. And God wants us to be change agents. The work of God is to call us constantly to turn, toward the good, toward the light, toward one another, toward the stranger, toward a world reconciled and whole, toward a world transformed by love, transformed by enormous changes at the last minute.

And yet, we fight against change. We hate change, right? To change is to be uncomfortable. To change is to grieve the familiar. And—believe me, I know—change gets harder as we get older. And yet, to live in time is to change. It is only outside of time that nothing changes. Time changes us, and there’s not a thing we can do about it. This is not news. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “The only constant is change.” Our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts-Shori has said: the only organism that doesn’t change is a dead organism.

Somehow, over centuries the institutional church became understood as an organism that is not supposed to change. How that happened is another story for another time, but I think it has to do with our humanity getting the best of us sometime in the fourth or fifth century. The result is that church became the place where people come to be safe and comfortable. But we are called to be God’s change agents in the world, agents of love and hope, agents of enormous changes at the last minute. I often describe St. David’s as a training ground for disciples. Should a training ground for being God’s change-agents have as its highest value, never changing?

As we move through these last days of what our church calendar calls “ordinary time,” we are nearing the end of the year in which we read the gospel of Mark; in a few weeks, we’ll start reading Luke. Each of the four gospels offers a particular challenge to the church[1]: John challenges the church to love one another, as Jesus loves us. Matthew and Luke call each of us to engage in mission, particularly to those who are “the other.” Mark’s challenge, which we heard a lot in the beginning of Advent last year, is pay attention. Stay awake. Watch. Keep your eyes on the prize.

As we enter again into these dark days of expectation and hear stories of enormous changes at the last minute, keep watch. Pay attention. See where God, the great change agent, is calling you to move in a new direction for the sake of the Kingdom.

[1] With thanks to Lamar Williamson, Mark, Interpretation Series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 238, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4.

The Consecrated Life

Take our lives and let them be consecrated, Lord, to thee.

I used occasionally to use as an ice-breaker for small group meetings the question: What is your favorite hymn? Until I realized I couldn’t possibly answer the question myself. There are at least 20 or 30 of them. A better question might be: What is your favorite hymn of the moment?

Sometimes my favorite hymn of the moment is the one we just sang. Take today, for example. I love “take my life and let it be.” For a long time, that’s the way I heard the words. Let me be, God. Leave me alone. Certainly many of us have felt that way about God some time or other. Let me be. Let me live my own life. Stop messing with me.

I had to teach myself that the real words are “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.”

What does it mean to lead a consecrated life?

The word consecrate has several meanings:

It can mean to dedicate to a given goal or service. We do this with people and with places. We consecrate a bishop. We consecrate a new church building, dedicating it to the purpose of worship and prayer. We consecrate graves and other memorials. We consecrate simple, ordinary things of life, like bread and wine, making them be for us the body and blood of Christ.

So what do we pray to do, when we pray, in this hymn, to live a consecrated life?

We have a perfect illustration in today’s gospel story of the poor widow in the temple. This story is familiar to many of us; we call it the story of the “widow’s mite,” because “mite” is an old English term for a very small coin. The widow’s mite has come to be symbolic of much more than a small coin; it points to a particular response to God, the response that says: “Whatever I have, I give to God.” She out of her poverty has put in everything she had.

I think if we are honest, many of us can say that, like the majority of those in the temple, we give out of our abundance. We look at our income and our expenses, and we give what we can. We are blessed in many ways, and we share those blessings. Believe me, I know: You’re a very generous bunch.

In this abundant life, however, we may be missing the experience of total faith and surrender that we see in the widow in today’s Gospel. Her poverty itself becomes part of what she gives to God. There is no boundary between what belongs to her and what belongs to God. Her poverty is her abundance.

If most of us give out of our abundance, is there a way that we can we give out of our poverty?

Many of us feel impoverished in time. Who has leftover time lying around to give away?  The Jewish theologian and activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, described time as: “a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[i] Isn’t that a great description? A slick treacherous monster incinerating every moment of our lives.

Many of us barely have time to do what it takes to keep our day-to-day lives running smoothly. My friends have often heard me rant about how there’s something vitally wrong with our system, when the most common answer to the question “how have you been?” in daily social interaction is “I’ve been so busy!” or “it’s been crazy!” Take my moments and my days, says the hymn. What if we lived as though all of our time belonged to God? Not that we owe God some amount of our time, but rather that it is all God’s time. Just breathe that in for a moment.

The other kind of poverty we can consecrate to God’s purposes is our poverty of spirit. Jesus teaches: Blessed are the poor in spirit. My favorite translation of this is “How blessed are those who know their need of God.”

We know our need of God, and we are blessed, when we are honest about our doubts. Doubts about ourselves, about God, about the world around us. When we feel inadequate even to pray. We give our poverty of spirit to God when—like the authors of the psalms—we are willing to give God all of our emotions: our anger, our longing for vengeance against those who have hurt us, even our sense of betrayal by God. When this is all we have to give to God, we need to give it to God in the same way that the widow in the gospel gives all she has to give.

Sometimes our poverty manifests itself in emptiness. We have nothing to give. Nothing. I recently heard a speaker say: “Nothing is God’s favorite raw material. God created the world out of nothing.” (I wish I’d said that!) So when we’ve got nothing, let’s give that to God and see what happens.

Jesus gave everything in the sacrifice of his life. He didn’t say: I’m going to give my wisdom and my love, but I’m not going to give my fear or my doubt or my humanity. He gave it all. When we say “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us,” we are talking about giving all, as an offering and a sacrifice. A consecrated life.

* * *

God is calling each of us, at this moment and always, into a consecrated life. We do this by bringing our whole selves—our abundance and our poverty—to the altar, week after week, sharing in the Eucharist in order to make Christ’s sacrifice our own. When we share in the consecrated bread and wine at this table, we share food for the journey, sustenance for the consecrated life.

Along the journey, when will we seize the chance to joyfully turn out the pockets of our calendars and our hearts? Let us pray that our lives may be consecrated—all that we have and all that we are, all the time.

            Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love;
Take my heart, it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne.
Take my will and make it think; it shall be no longer mine.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.

[i] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus , and Giroux, 1953), p. 4.