Monthly Archives: November 2013

King Backward

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

crownOnce upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a King.  He was no ordinary king.  He was different from other kings because he did everything backwards.  From the very day he was born, you could tell that this king was going to be different.

Most kings are born in a palace, but this king was born in a stable. There was no press corps, no viral speculation as to the new king’s name, no massive crowds surrounding the barn, nothing but a handful of shepherds and a few foreigners.

As the infant king grew into a man, he continued to be unusual in a disconcerting way. While most governors and presidents spend their time building up riches of gold, jewels, cars, houses, hobbies, board appointments, this king had nothing at all. People began to call him “King Backward.” And while most powerful leaders surround themselves with security guards, drivers, and servants, he chose to be a servant. As time went on, people became very unhappy with King Backward because he just didn’t act the way that they expected a king to act. Instead of riding into town in a big black car as part of a long motorcade the way he was supposed to, he rode into town on a borrowed 3-speed.  Was that any way for a king to act?

And the people he chose to be his friends!  He could often be seen visiting with homeless people and known criminals, or eating with prostitutes and worse, collection agents. Finally the people decided that they had put up with this King long enough. They kept waiting for him to do something spectacular. But he didn’t. If He couldn’t act the way a king should act, then they didn’t want him to be their king any more.

You know the rest of the story. And the final scene in King Backward’s life as we know it is the one we hear about in today’s gospel. In just a few weeks, we’ll celebrate the infant King Backward by singing This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Or we’ll sing, Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King. Today’s gospel reminds us to make no mistake—this ends badly. For a few days, at least.

Why do we have this gospel, today? This Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, is meant to be a triumphant Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year, that culminates all of Jesus’ teaching and good works, right? This is the New Year’s Eve of the church…we’re supposed to be celebrating! This isn’t Good Friday!

On days like today when we are reminded that we cannot look at Christ as King in triumph without remembering Jesus on the cross. The irony is that perhaps nowhere is Jesus more kingly—in the unique way that he is king—than in the scene we have in today’s gospel. The cross is Jesus’ triumph.

The power of the cross is the refusal to use power. The political leaders, the soldiers, even one of the two criminals hanging next to him all challenge Jesus to use his power to prove himself and to save himself. But (as anyone who has ever spent time in twelve-step programs knows), true power and true salvation come only when we experience our complete powerlessness. Jesus’ power here, his control, is his act of letting go, self-emptying. The image of Jesus on the cross is the image of powerlessness.

Jesus’ power is the power to wait, the power to let God act, the power to live out of the knowledge that suffering is a necessary part of transformation. Don’t you wish, sometimes, that you could appropriate some of that power? I do.

There is one person in today’s gospel who recognizes Jesus’ kingly power in this moment of profound powerlessness: the other of the two criminals hanging next to Jesus. Throughout the gospels, the people who recognize Jesus for who he is are always the mostly unlikely ones, not professors or lawyers or theologians, but the itinerant fishermen, the despised tax collectors, the lepers, the dying, and the desperate. This is still true on the cross. The truth is spoken by that desperate criminal who says “Jesus, remember me when you come in to your kingdom.”

This guy is often called “The thief who repented.” I like to think of him as “the thief who recognized Jesus.” In a few weeks we’ll hear John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. One way of thinking about repentance is to say that repentance is to recognize Jesus, and recognize that the Kingdom has come near to us. This is our call at the very beginning of the church year and it is our call at the end, and every moment in between: recognize Jesus, and recognize the Kingdom of God.

The feast of Christ the King is the New Year’s Eve for the Church. What are your New Year’s resolutions? What will you give up in the New Year? What will you let go of? Is there some area in your life where God calls you to be King Backward or Queen Backward? Sometimes we cannot recognize the work of God in the world around us and in our own lives until we let go of power and control of Jesus does. It is only then that, to borrow words from today’s Collect, we are freed and brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule.

There is, in fact, reason to celebrate today. We are gathered, not scattered. We will come together in a little while for a small bit of bread and a sip of wine and call it a feast. And this feast that we share is both a foretaste and a celebration of the kingdom over which Christ is indeed Lord of all. Let us celebrate.

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Crisis, New Life, Repeat

Preached yesterday for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost…

Crisis has an amazing way of stitching together the community it needs to heal. The design of our humanity has something knit into it that comes alive when a terrible thing happens. Once when I was taking a fresh air break in the parking lot of the bookstore I worked at I had the terrible experience of watching a little girl run past me and well ahead of her mother. She ran into the lane in front of the store and was immediately knocked aside by a car that was moving much too fast for a parking lot and which not stop to check on the small child which it left lying on the ground.  Just moments before I had been admiring the Carolina blue sky and then in an instant everything changed. I rose to my feet filled with the sheer terror of not knowing what in the world to do next, but that lasted for merely the blink of an eye, and before i knew it the scene was filled with folks rushing to her aid. One was a nurse and another allied 911 while another was kind enough to sit with the little girl’s sobbing older sister at some distance away. It was like watching a body repair itself, all the cells rushing up to the site where damage had been done, rushing in to repair the tear which had been made in the flesh. In the end, that little girl got up again, and the driver who ran her over returned, and within an hour the scene in front of the store returned to its former placid state the shoppers coming and going with no knowledge of what had just transpired.

This kind of healing happens all the time, all around us, so much so that we stop taking note of the sirens at times. It happens on a larger scale, too.  In the late 90s Hurricane Fran ripped through the middle of North Carolina and much of my neighborhood was flooded and without power for weeks. We met neighbors we had never known before in the process, all of us banding together to clean our our fridges and cut up downed trees. Last year, after I left New York City the same thing happened there, too. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy I watched as parts of the occupy movement moved in to help where federal social services were failing. One church in Brooklyn filled its pews with donations for those in need. Across the nation support poured in, and for many New Yorkers it was a familiar feeling to have their crisis placed in the national spotlight, and to be transformed by the flood of aid which rose from the national body to support them. It is a resilience, a buoyancy, that seems to bring out the best in us when we see our fellows neighbors in need.

Occupy Sandy Relief Effort at St. Matthew St. Luke Episcopal

In the first century, the inhabitants of Jerusalem watched as their city and the Temple of their God within it were destroyed by the Imperial power of Rome. This was the second time in Isarel’s history that their temple had been destroyed, the first time occurred at the hands of the Babylonians. The first time was also the occasion for the prophetic call for return. Returning to the ways of God and also an eventual physical return to the place of destruction, a return to the wound, to heal and rebuild and resettle. The same impulse of resilience and collaborative, buoyant, healing. Not everyone returned, though, many Jews became comfortable in the Greek cities where they were settled. After the destruction of the second temple even fewer chose to return. An effort to rebuild the Temple a third time in the 4th century failed partially because balls of fire mysteriously erupted from its foundation when builders returned to it, but also partly because of ambivalence. Partly because the wounds of exile had healed in new ways, giving birth to new forms of spiritual expression, among them rabbinic Judaism and the early Christian church.

The Jesus whom we hear from this morning is a Jesus remembered by this community in crisis, a Hellenistic Jewish world reeling from the trauma of having their metropolitan heart ripped out from their dispersed body. The Jesus they imagine and the Jesus they write about in the midst of this trauma is one who speaks in apocalyptic terms, one who speaks of terrifying endings, a great tumult through which persisting believers will by their endurance regain their souls. The landscape this Jesus paints is desolating, and not so far off from the world we live in now, one where our brothers and sisters in the Philippines are at this very moment sifting through the rubble of what was once their lives. Jesus speaks of this destruction in the future tense, but for those who were reading this Jesus, for those who were writing this Jesus, the destruction was real and present, just as it is for us now. And what does this Jesus tell his followers? Don’t be so impressed by the man-made majesty around you. It will not last. But do not be afraid. I will be with you, and what does remain is better.

I wonder about a few things with this. I wonder, first of all, what it takes to access our resilient human buoyancy for neighbors who live on the other side of the globe. For those of us nearby the little girl hit by the car it was immediate, for neighbors emerged in similar circumstances it was sustained, and even when the nation watches our brothers and sisters in a major city like New York the support comes. But what about when the injured do not look like us? What about when computer screens stand between us and the image of suffering? What about when our senses have been numbed to these images? The second thing I wonder about it what we, as the people of St. David’s would do if our own brick and mortar center of community were to be thrown down. Would we rally? Would we persist in gathering? What new expression of this community would be born of such a crisis? One of the barriers to our empathetic involvement in those crises far removed from us seems to be our own security. The Jesus whom we hear from this morning is not impressed with the beauty of the temple, and he is not impressed with the security we have established for ourselves here. He encourages us to know these material comforts as fleeting, perishable, vulnerable to total loss, standing in total need of aid. Knowing ourselves as this vulnerable, will we rise to meet the needs of those who have already lost everything?

The God whom we have come to know in Jesus is a wounded God, a God nailed to the cross of human fear and cruelty and pain, and the buoyant resilience which brought him forth from the grave is alive in us today; it is rushing through us to the place in our global body where its hope for new life is needed most.

God’s Classroom

Jeanne Kaliszewski preached this sermon with us for the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost:

I am one of those strange people who would make a profession of school if I could. I love the debates, the readings, and even the papers. When I was a kid I loved the first day of school, the new clothes and new classrooms.

So when I read today’s gospel lesson I realized that one of my visions of heaven could be a classroom, with a  professor that looks and sounds like John Houseman in the “Paper Chase”. I am dating myself here, and for those too young for this reference, just imagine a white haired, pot-bellied man with a slow, deep British intonation and sharp eye who calls on you in class the minute you were daydreaming.

But in my heavenly classroom everything is graded on a curve, everyone gets an extension when they need it, and John Houseman or Socrates or Ms. Stengler my 7th grade Language Arts teacher or whoever is teaching is always impressed with my insight and knowledge.

In today’s gospel Jesus is in the temple, but it feels a bit like a classroom. He is being quizzed by the Sadducees, who clearly consider themselves the smartest kids in the room. They’ve done their homework, and feel superior to Jesus as evidenced by the ridiculous question they pose to him. You can almost see them smirking as they talk through the scenario of the unlucky woman who marries seven brothers, only to be widowed seven times.

In this story the Jesus that I envision is like that dreamy guy who sits at the back of the classroom, the one who never needs to do his homework, who doesn’t turn in his assignments, but when he is called on in class comes up with something utterly brilliant, something that blows away the professor, and that radically changes your perspective.raised hand

In God’s classroom the normal rules do not apply, logic and reason give way to a new way of thinking. Jesus questions the very premise of the Sadducees riddle, and thus points out the limitations of their thinking:

“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.  Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

God’s love transforms us, and when the Sadducees pose the question of resurrection to Jesus they are limited by their inability to recognize God’s transformational power. When they pose the question of the resurrection to Jesus, they can only imagine resurrection as a continuation of life as it is today on Earth, with the same rules and the same reality.  But Jesus answers that when we encounter God we are no longer who we were before, but something utterly new “like angels and children of God”.

The miracle of this is that we do not have to wait for death to experience this resurrection, this transformation. When we are able to silence the chatter in our heads, the agitation that drowns out the whispers of the Holy Spirit, we can feel the power that God has to change us in our everyday life.

Resurrection is possible here, now, in this moment. But being a child of the resurrection requires a death first, there can be no resurrection without it. But it is a life-giving death. It is finding the strength to walk away from addiction or a destructive relationship. It is finding the courage to walk away from who you think you are and and entering a new life by turning yours over to God. But the new life does not come immediately, and resurrection is painful:

Mary Karr, in her memoir “Lit” writes: If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then-for me, anyway- a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren’t yet operational.There’s been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible”.

In his answer to the Sadducees,  Jesus also reminds those listening of the covenant God has with the Jewish people:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

And while this is, most certainly, a clever response on Jesus’ part, by referring to Abraham and Moses to prove his point, using their own history in a new way, I believe it is something more. Jesus is reminding them, and us, that God is in relationship with us, that he is active in our lives. God has made a promise to his people.

Jesus himself is part of that promise, he is God’s covenant with us made flesh, the voice from the sky who spoke to Moses and Abraham made of body and bone and blood. And that new covenant in Jesus, born in love, sealed in blood, and fulfilled in the resurrection is alive to us today when we open what St. Paul calls “the eyes of our heart”.

“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living” Jesus says. And like so much of what Jesus says, we can find many different shades of meaning in “he is God not of the dead, but of the living”. We can hear that we will live with God after this life passes away.

We can hear that now, in this world and in this moment, in God we can truly find life. That by living in God’s word today, we enter life everlasting. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through. If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.”)

We can hear by that truly engaging in this world, and not numbing ourselves into a living death, we can feel the true presence of God.

Belief in resurrection is not easy.  And in the end, the real end, it is with faith peppered with doubt and questions that I choose to believe in the reality of resurrection, as well as the metaphor.  Sometimes my faith is a still, glassy pond of belief but more often it feels like tempestuous and powerful ocean that ebbs and flows and carries me up on huge swells and then dumps me into deep troughs. But God tugs deeply at my soul the way the moon pulls the tide to shore.

And so, even though it is not Easter, here we are pondering the reality of resurrection. And I believe God is too small to be held in this one reality. Because, although I believe in the eternity of the moment, I also believe that God would not let this be all there is for those who have suffered through this life with illness and pain and addiction and abuse. Because I witness resurrection everyday and I believe it is rooted in something miraculous.

So while I have no answers, after all it would not be faith if I did, these words of John Updike from his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” speak to me:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

When we worship here together we practice resurrection, and we walk through the door, together.

Somewhere between the BVM and your sixth grade teacher

This is a favorite feast of mine—what I love about All Saints is that it encompasses the enormity of our tradition—so many saints, known and unknown.

All Saints Sunday is for us, as for many worshipping communities, the culmination of several holidays: All Hallows Eve, All Souls, and All Saints. Three different ways of blurring the border between death and life. All Hallows Eve is, of course, when we get glimpses of what goes on not quite beyond the grave, in the form of ghosts and ghouls. We had a great number of ghosts at our house on Thursday night. All Souls, also known as All Faithful Departed, is the day that we commemorate all the everyday people in our lives whom we love but see no longer, particularly those whom we have lost in the last year. All Saints, which on the calendar falls between All Hallows and All Souls, is the day to celebrate all the Saints-with-a-capital-S. On this day, we celebrate saints large and small.

I once offered a Sunday forum on Saints and asked everyone to name their favorite. A lot of people said St. Francis. A handful said St. Mary, or St. Mary Magdalene. One said St. Benedict. One said St. Polycarp, because it’s a fun name to say. In the next midweek eucharist, I asked everyone to talk about a saint in their own lives. A surprising number of them, like 5 out of 7, said their sixth grade teacher.

Who is your favorite saint? Who has been a saint in your own life? Your assignment for this morning is to think about those questions, and give thanks for those saints in your heart when you come to the altar for the Eucharist.

Every year I choose a Saint-with-a-capital-S to be a Saint of the Day on All Saints Day. I’d say this year’s saint falls somewhere between the Blessed Virgin Mary and your sixth grade teacher. This year’s Saint of the Day is… [drumroll….] Margaret of Scotland!

st margaretMargaret was an Anglo-Saxon English princess whose family took refuge in Scotland after the Norman conquest in 1066. In 1069, she married Malcolm, who had become King of Scotland after Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Lady MacBeth killed off King Duncan. (Remember Malcolm?) Margaret is described as providing the Scottish court, and the Scottish church, with “both a civilizing and a holy presence.” She was a woman of prayer and of good works. Her husband was a great admirer of her piety, and gave her free rein in promoting the practice of Christianity in his kingdom.

She went to work in cleaning up the church, which was not exactly corrupt, but considered “old-fashioned and careless.” I’m dying to know what “old-fashioned” meant in the eleventh century! A few examples of her reforms are recorded in history. The Scottish church didn’t adhere to the regular order of service, but just made it up as they went along. They played fast and loose with the church calendar, and they did not set aside Sunday as The Lord’s Day. And—what bothered her most of all—the most pious Scots had such an exaggerated sense of unworthiness that they refused to receive communion.

Margaret had a particular love of the poor, and put this love into practice through hospitality and through building hospitals, schools, and orphanages.

What grabbed me about Margaret as a Saint of the Day is her emphasis on the practice of Christianity. I think it is good for us to think of our faith as a practice in two ways. First, in the sense of putting something into practice, into action. Someone who practices medicine does not simply stay home and read, or talk to people about medicine, they see patients, perform surgery, administer tests, and—hopefully—heal people. So it is with faith. We practice our profession of faith by doing things that Margaret did: caring for the poor, being regular in worship, and bringing our identity as a person of faith to all of our activities.

Margaret was a doer. Now, I know, we’re all supposed to be human beings not human doings, and we’re not defined by what we do. BUT there are times when doing something is the right thing, times when God calls us to act out our faith, whether that action is caring for someone who desperately needs our attention or giving time to an organization or climbing these steps to share in an ancient Eucharistic practice.

Margaret is not arguing theology or defending doctrine, she’s simply acting out her faith by doing what she believes God would have her do.

One of the wonderful things about where my office is, hidden away back here, is that I’m right next door to the Music Studio, and if I’m lucky, I get to evesdrop on a lot of Val’s voice lessons. This year she’s teaching a lot of songs from Fiddler on the Roof, so I have them in the forefront of my mind. A lot of them get stuck in one’s head, as some of you probably know.

There’s a wonderful scene in Fiddler, where Tevye’s second daughter has just announced she’s marrying for love. This is an utterly foreign and newfangled concept to him and so he asks his wife: “Do you love me?” She of course has never thought of such a thing and thinks he’s nuts. He asks again:

Tevye: Golde, I’m asking you a question. Do you love me?
Golde: You’re a fool!
Tevye: I know. But do you love me?

Golde: Do I love you?
For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, 
Given you children, milked the cow.
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
 

 

Golde may not know how to talk about love, but she knows how to practice love.

The other sense of the word practice applies here as well. We practice something as we try to get it right. None of us will ever be perfect Christians. (There was only one of those and he would never have used the word Christian to describe himself.) But we must keep doing those things that we feel God calls us to do as followers of Jesus. We must not be like the medieval Scottish clergy of Margaret’s time who felt they were not worthy to follow the practices of Jesus.

Our worthiness is not what is at stake here. In fact, our worthiness is neither here nor there. Sort of like Tevye and Golde, who for a long time felt that love was neither here nor there and yet, it turns out to have been here and there all along.

We’re about to renew our baptismal promises, promises that were made on our behalf if we were baptized as babies, and promises that we make if we are baptized as adults. The fact that we make these baptismal promises over again at least four times a year—that’s part of our practice—is a reminder that these are the things we strive to do, to practice: prayer, communion, evangelism, justice, peace, respect.

As we turn to these promises, let us remember Margaret of Scotland and all the saints who have gone before us and practiced their faith, as we practice ours, with God’s help, in the name of Christ.