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Your Illusion of Christ

June 26, 2016 Leave a comment

long lotus

Here’s my question for the day: “What illusions do you have about what Jesus expects of you when you choose to follow him?” Let me repeat that: “What illusions do you have about what Jesus expects of you when you choose to follow him?” For many years I was under the illusion that if or when I would finally be answering His call, everything in and about life would suddenly be like a movie. The butterflies and birds would fly around in circles near my head. Everyone would treat me kindly and I’d see the perfect utopia that we all dream about. Rainbows everywhere, and hunger, fear, disease and poverty were too far out of sight to be brought to mind for even the slightest moment.

I had a lot to learn and learned a lot in a very short time once I stopped the kicking and screaming as I passed from one Committee on Ministry to the next in my diocesan ministry discernment process. I was second-guessing myself right up to almost having to be dragged down the aisle by the saints and angels to have Bishop Baxter lay his hands on me to be ordained. Even the next Sunday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, so afraid I’d sleep in, that it hit me hard – this was for the rest of my life! This following Jesus thing was now for real! But did it have to involve wearing a collar? There were so many good lay ministers out there that seemed to be more in tune to what it meant to be a Christian than I ever thought I could be. In short, I was like John and James, wanting to know where those lightning bolts were to hurl around at something… just anything… to prove a point. I couldn’t tell you what that point was but I was positive that since I was now following Jesus I might as well go and do some rebuking of my own!

But when we read today’s gospel we find that all of that fluff that we dream about happening couldn’t be further from the truth. What do mean we can’t call upon the heavens to destroy some civilization that is being mean to us? It wasn’t part of the Old Testament lesson for today, but we just read about Elijah, Isn’t that what he did? Didn’t he request that God send down fire to wipe out enemies? Surely we can take revenge on those who harm us. It’s in the bible. We just read it. Oh, and still yet, didn’t Elijah let Elisha, who wished to continue on and follow him go home to say good bye to his family? But now Jesus won’t allow this one potential disciple leave to take care of the bones of his deceased father and then return and continue on with him. Why is there such a difference between what we hear in the old testament and what we hear Jesus doing when it involves the same situations?

Unfortunately, when we try to relate to the bible and look there for answers to what it is we should do in our daily lives, so many of us get caught up in the laws, just as the Jews did, just as the Greeks did, just as the Romans did. To understand Jesus, to understand what it takes to be a Christian requires us to unwrap our brains from the rules and regulations and sink our souls into the Spirit of Christ. I couldn’t remember where I first heard the saying that “You must never break a law unless you know the reason why the law was written in the first place.” Seems that you’d have to be a bit of a renegade to do that. But then again that’s what Jesus was. He healed on the Sabbath, he hung out with the homeless and the sick, he crossed religious and cultural boundaries tending to those different than him, and he opposed war, revenge, and violence.

Looking at those traits, what do many who claim to be Christians do today? Cities are finding ways to make it more and more difficult to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Money is withheld from or refused by agencies whereby that money would enable those who need health care the most to get it. Lies are spread and traps set to lure others into fighting instead of seeking to compromise on issues and work things out in peaceful fashion. We could go on and on with these comparisons, and even try to make them political, but the fact of the matter is they are issues not about countries or cities or governments but issues that affect the dignity of human beings everywhere. I’m saying these things today; Jesus was explaining it a couple thousand years ago. Not much has changed except the time and place.

What does all of that have to do with me being a Christian, you might ask? According to Jesus, it has everything to do with it. When we talk of being a Christian so many people like to wrap themselves up in their own little cuddly blanket thinking that to say they are Christians is enough. They wear crosses and put tag lines on email addresses and maybe even have a Shield on their car. They do the duties in church that are needed for the congregation to survive like tithe, volunteer and assist with the services. They do everything they’ve heard they should do and have read – like the ten commandments – from the old law. Yet still we find something missing. Something that nags at us from time to time and we can’t quite put our finger on it. Eventually it comes to us, some late in life, some early, some early, then late, then even late after that. Those are the ones like me who had the call at the age of 10, then put it off at the wise old age of 13, then on again around 35, off at 40, on at 45… until finally we think we “get it”. And then we find out there’s way more to what Jesus kind of said would happen but we glossed over it and act surprised when it does happen.

We find that following Jesus and being a Christian means what Paul said today, that now we are led not by earthly, material things (the flesh as he calls it) but we are led by the Spirit and so must live the way of Christ. We find that living in Christ means that our first response to a crisis is not about what happened or will happen to our property, but we move forward with an automatic concern and compassion for the people who may be effected by that crisis no matter if it’s from a natural disaster or an act of violence, revenge, or war. And we find that living in Christ means we know the reasons why rules and laws were written and made and if the time comes to break that law in order to save lives – be it human or animal, domestic or foreign – we will act in the spirit of the law of do what is right.

Looking back at my own illusion, what I thought what being a true follower of Jesus would be like, all I can say is, “it’s not the same animal, not even the same species.” But once we understand the nature of Christ, not the superficial one some talk about, but the Christ that feeds us with grace and inspires us through the acts of others; once we begin to understand that, we can begin to accept that not everything about being a Christian is butterflies and rainbows. You’ll often be on the wrong side of history. You’ll often have an opposing view of current affairs from what your friends have. You’ll often be in the middle of some illness, some crisis, some dilemma – either yours or other’s – that needs professional help. You may not have it all as far as others are concerned. Having it all is the illusion that you started with. But you will have more than you will ever need or know through this Grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Deacon Pete

(Ref Revised Common Lectionary:  Year C, 6 Pentecost, Proper 8, June 26 2016)

 

 

Raised Up Like the Serpent

March 15, 2015 Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16.  This verse is probably one that most everyone knows.   It’s probably one that most everyone as heard or seen.  And if you have ever watched even a dozen or more athletic events through the years, especially golf and have seen the signs raised up with this notation on them, you may even gloss over it as fast as it enters your mind.  I’ve always been amused with that aspect of this one sentence; that so many or our Christian brothers and sisters use it to get attention.  Because while on one hand there are believers in Jesus who use it as their mantra to explain how anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as their lord and savior is condemned to hell; others hold it in their hearts that this is too hard to believe.  That if God not just loved the world, but is Love and the one true light – as we are also taught by John (among others) – how could not believing or not even knowing this gospel separate someone from God?  In other words, does the passage from Paul we read today really mean what John Calvin believed?  That there is an elect group of people who God has chosen to receive salvation and no one else gets in, defying the forgiving virtues of grace that we know so well?

This is such a difficult teaching, not only to comprehend without throwing our human thinking out the door, but to break down theologically as well.  And it leaves many preachers leaving it tucked into the gospel reading and heading toward the other lessons.  As I will do… for a moment… then we’ll return.  Because leading us into this creed of believing is a reference to the Book of Numbers that was given to us for this day.  Jesus said “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up…”  Now Jesus very often uses scripture to show the relationship between himself and what the prophets were speaking of.  (It always fascinates me how people who had so few books could remember so much written material.  This is just a side bar on the subject but it shows how far too much information we have on our minds these days.  I have a very hard time just remembering names, a few passages and psalms here and there, and a tenth of the grocery list I left at home.  This is proof of how much we really do need the bible in our daily lives and not just on Sundays… keeping the scriptures alive as so many did before us.)  But; let’s look at what the serpents or snakes represent.  This is one of the times the people are grumbling and complaining about what they don’t have.  Keep in mind they are now free from bondage.  They are on their own, traveling around the wilderness searching for a new home.  There is no food or water… and here comes one of those lines that completely befuddles you, how can there be no food or water and have the food be so miserable?  It really does represent extreme dissatisfaction when you detest the things you don’t have!  So God thinks, “Well, they are once again placing troubles over freedom.  I guess it’s time for another lesson.”  So snakes are sent, fatally poisonous ones at that, and as more Israelites are bitten the more they die, until at last the people look at it as punishment for their groaning and complaining.  And as Moses usually does, he talks to God to try and intercede for them and we have the bronze serpent mounted on a pole that heals those who are bitten.

One word we can throw out with this: Idol.  We can be led to think this is a form of idolatry but keep in mind they are not giving praise and bowing down to the statue.  They are using it as a representation of their problems and a means of coming to terms with those things that are killing them.  Well into the future, where 500 years later this same snake is in the temple in Jerusalem, people had made it into an idol, and came to revere it so much they gave it the name Nehushtan.  King Hezekiah then had it destroyed to put an end to it.  For as much as many people hate them, snakes and serpents are used throughout cultures as representations of one aspect of life or another, in many ways as a good thing.  For instance we are aware that the emblem worn by people with the American Medical Association is that of a snake entwined on a staff.  That symbol comes from the Greek god of healing.  We are told back in Genesis how wise the serpent was.  And other cultures depict it as symbols of fertility.

But for the Israelites the snakes sent by God meant one thing:  sin.  It was for their sins that the snakes were sent and it was by looking up at a snake that they repented.  There’s a saying that goes along with this that says ‘that which kills, heals’ or if you’re into the pop singer Kelly Clarkson one of her songs has a line; ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ For many poisons and diseases it’s the very thing that causes you pain that is used for the serum.  We build up immune systems and create vaccines from the very viruses that give us the flu and other communicable diseases.  The venom from snakes and spiders is milked to make a serum that will reverse the effects of their bites.  The snakes can also be thought of as the things in life that become our downfall.  We may first think of it as our diseases or our illnesses, but are those things mostly our faults?  Perhaps we can think of the serpents as our faults, our grumbling, our moaning, our inequities, yes – our sins, all of these and more are what keep us from living a healthy and spirit-filled life.  These are the things that spread some of the true sicknesses throughout the world; the sickness of hate, of greed, of indifference, of intolerance, of exclusion.  I don’t know if they are dangerous or deadly until they come back to bite me.  And then they show how bad they really are.  In fact in some interpretations of this the Hebrew word used is the same as fiery!  Another says flying!  Flying, fiery serpents!  Were they really fire breathing dragons or perhaps was the sting of the venom so bad it felt as if you were on fire?  I like to think that the realization of what keeps us back and truly is a sin against God and our neighbor can be enough to cause you to feel a little sick, and perhaps if it’s bad enough maybe even some fiery heart burn.

But how will this same item bring you relief?  How can our sins bring us grace and forgiveness – new life?  The revelation here is that once we’ve identified what ails us, once we come to grips with our faults; we hold them up in front of us and examine them for what they’re worth.  Just as the Israelites looked up at the bronze serpent on the pole to be healed of their wounds, we hold up our wrongdoings and reflect on them.  And once we admit the shortcomings and change our way of thinking (or repent), we are healed and forgiven, and the grace of God carries us on.

So it’s no coincidence that these passages are used in Lent.  We are in a season of repentance.  More and more people are using Lent as a time for an inner journey, finding the things in their lives that do them or others no good, and making the necessary changes to move on.  We are creating the same story for ourselves as the Israelites did who held up the bronze serpent.  It is nearing the time in Lent where we will look up at the son of man being raised up on a cross.  Jesus spoke the words.  He was raised up.  Except not just raised up on a cross for our viewing.  Not just raised up in atonement.  Not just raised up to cure us of our ills.  But raised up in his own pain and suffering – for us to see and feel the healing power of Christ – in our personal lives, the healing power of Christ in our family and neighbor’s lives, and the healing power of Christ in the life of the church.  Yes, God so loved the world… that He gave his only begotten son… and we are left with the mystery of how it all works… a mystery of which the more you believe, the deeper the mystery becomes… until nothing matters because the only thing you see is the light.  Amen.         Deacon Pete

citations:  RCL; Year B, 4th Sunday in Lent

Maundy Thursday

April 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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This evening is special. Maundy Thursday. The lead-in to what we call the Triduum; consisting of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The root word of Maundy is the same as ‘mandate’. Mandate Thursday. The day in which Jesus gave us a mandate to love. After all it is John’s Gospel. John’s message is one of love and so we must hold that in mind as we go through all of today’s liturgies. And we have just heard John’s version of the meal that was had prior to the betrayal. In this gospel we get a different side of the story and perhaps combined with the synoptic gospels – a more complete telling of Jesus’s last night. It’s the focal point of our worship and the foundation of what Christianity used as its starting point to gather the body of Christ together. But this is the only day of the year you’re guaranteed to hear John’s version of Jesus’s last night not with the bread and wine, but with the washing of feet.
So keep in mind as we progress through this and every service where we celebrate Holy Eucharist, that if the only Gospel we had was John’s, people would be wearing sandals to church each Sunday in preparation to have their feet washed. Easy off, easy on. Instead of bread and wine we’d have warm water and fragrant soap. Instead of corporals and purificators on an altar we’d have sponges and towels on a dry sink. And perhaps instead of a communion rail we’d have a row of benches along-side a trench that carried the water to a drain. The Jewish custom of celebrating Passover with a meal would not have the slightest role in our services because it would now be a Christian service based on Love and spreading that Love by caring for each other. Instead we carry on with a worship service gleaned from what we Episcopalians cherish most: Food.
Today’s lectionary gives us a good overview of how Passover evolved into a liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. Along with John’s narrative we have the telling of the Passover, where the legacy of sacrificing a lamb saved the first born of the Hebrews. We have Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, with an understanding that prior to this instruction, he is scolding them for turning the Holy Eucharist into a feast where only the upper echelon of society gets served, and the rest go hungry or beg for scraps. And sandwiched in between those two readings we find one of the Hallel psalms that’s known to all who speak Hebrew. The word ‘Hallel’ means praise. Add Yah onto it which means Lord, and you have Hallel-Yah, accurately interpreted as: “Praise the Lord!” Easily heard in our time as Halleluiah. Some of this small cluster of psalms are very often used in thanksgiving and worship services to show praise and honor to God. And they were also used during the Seder dinner at Passover.
So this Hallel psalm is particular to today’s readings. It allows us to say with a fair amount of certainty that Jesus recited this psalm on his last night. If you’ll humor me for a moment imagine a group of ten, twenty or so people gathered in a large living area, maybe the size of the chapel. They’re spread out across the floor or leaning against a wall. There may be a table that the food was setting on, and around that table we might find Jesus preparing to bless the food. He begins reciting psalm 116; perhaps from memory or perhaps from a scroll. He starts out, “I love the LORD.” The people in the room turn their attention to Him, already knowing the words that come next. The scrolls were their book of common prayer and they knew them well. He continues to read and further down he says, “What shall I return to the LORD?” I’d like to think that at this point he knows what he is about to face. He knows that it is his life in this world that is about to be returned to the LORD. Maybe at this point his voice begins to quiver in anticipation of the next verse; “I will lift up the cup of salvation.” We can see him glance at the cup of wine in front of him. It is this very cup he will bless and from it an eternal sacrament will be born. We have to wonder then, how he manages to make it through the next few verses. Especially verse 15, “Precious … is the death of his faithful ones,” knowing it is He that is precious because of his imminent death. And, maybe also knowing the fate awaiting those who sit around the room with him.
We can see how he had already started planning to act on the next verse “O LORD, I am your servant” and he begins by preparing to break the bread to be passed out to all who are there. Yet he won’t stop until everyone has been fed, and not only fed, but washed up as well, by performing the humble act of washing the disciple’s feet. For the verse continues; “I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.” You can’t be much lower than that on the rungs of the ladder of society; the child of your serving-maid. And so it remains as it is written, that he must show this group that their job is not to be served, but to serve others. Do not become like those Paul speaks of in Corinth. They are not to raise the cup and pass it around to an inner group of friends and cohorts. It is not a cup of luxury and perverted honor, but a cup of selflessness and humility that says “You have loosed my bonds.” I am a servant, yes, but a free servant because it is the LORD that I serve by serving others in His name.
Yet there is still more, still something deeper than the psalmist goes. Because you see, as if it weren’t enough to be set up to be murdered, it must also be a sacrifice. A sacrifice in thanksgiving. He offers Himself willingly with Love! Just as he lifts up the bread and wine and asks us to re-member this every time we share communion with our sisters and brothers in Christ, we are asked to receive it with Love and give it in Love to re-member with Him again and again and again. That is what it is all about. Re-membering in the Love that he gave his disciples. Re-membering in the Love that they grew in and passed on to others long after he was gone from their sight. Re-membering in the Love that he continues to give us and the love that we have grown in, and that we pass on to everyone, including those we do not know. At different times Jesus talked in different ways, using different styles of teaching. He used metaphors, analogies, and parables but when he wanted to truly get the point across he did so by being a living example.
We come together to share in having our feet washed once a year. Whether you think that as a good thing or a bad thing, you have the Gospel writers to praise or blame because they are the ones who used the meal a majority of the times. Having your feet washed by someone can be a transformative experience. Many have done it in the past and many more will do it today and in the future. It is purely by personal choice and nobody will be judged in any way. But if you’ve never participated in this. If you’ve never allowed another to humble themselves by kneeling before you to wash your feet, then I ask you to consider it. They say that Holy Communion is in two forms, the two elements of bread and wine, the body and blood; but now is the chance to receive in a third kind: The humility of being served in the name of The LORD by someone who is humbling themselves by serving in the name of The LORD. Amen.

Deacon Pete

Salt of the Earth, Light of the World

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

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When I arrived home from a meeting Wednesday afternoon I understood why my phone call to my wife went straight into voice mail.  A large portion of a hundred year old oak tree was laying in my driveway on top of the power and cable lines it had taken down with it.  What was truly amazing was that we somehow still had power.  No phone, internet or television – but power to keep the furnace running and the lights on.  We can look at times such as these in different ways.  One way would be to lose ourselves in fear and uncertainty.  While this was an eye opening experience to recognize how much we relied on the convenience of technology and electronic gadgets, it was also an opportunity to watch how community works either against us or for us.  This was also a turning point in selecting the topic for this sermon.   For as much as I wanted to talk about the passage from Paul’s letter this morning, these and several other events were happening that were pointing me to Matthew’s Gospel.  It seemed like every time I’d start to focus on what Paul was writing to the Corinthians there was a little nudge that kept bringing me back to the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Because from the moment I saw the damage up to and including this moment as I stand here with you, there were displays of people being the salt of the earth and letting their light shine – but there were also a few displays of darkness I’ll leave out.  From the young men who cleared away the tree to the electricians and power line workers who spent hours outside in the freezing cold, each one went out of their way to make us as comfortable as possible, letting their own lights shine whether they knew it or not. 

In one sense, we might all agree that an obvious reference to the beginning of Jesus’s teaching is one of being a good friend or citizen.  Yet it’s deeper than that.  It’s when we work from our hearts, standing up and helping others who are not as fortunate as us; that our works act as salt, helping to spice up the world with the flavors of faith, hope, and love.  These are the acts that also light up the dark corners and alleys of the world in places that seldom see light.  When you spend most of your time suppressed and oppressed by events you can’t control, the darkness is a place you know well.  And on the other side of things, if everything is going well for you and you seldom notice something going wrong, it can be difficult to recognize or acknowledge when a stranger or even acquaintance needs assistance.  That can become a problem as well, but on a different level.  My question became; how can we live as this light, share it, and take it to those who are constant witness to the darkness?      

Whether we know it or not, when we ask a question either in absolute seriousness or with time worn cynicism, God has ways of pointing a finger in the direction you should be going.  I needed something more than the obvious and something more was trying to break through.  As I was doing some reading for the other sermon I was planning on, one of those Holy fingers pointed to a quote by the poet Annie Dillard who said, “If you want to see the stars, you have to go into the dark of night.”  “If you want to see the stars” … another thread of thought began to develop in answer to my question.  How often do we even think about looking at the stars anymore?  In these times of around-the-clock work and play with properties lit up like it was Christmas 365 days a year, we have to travel out in the country a good ways if we want to search for the planets and constellations. The night sky is often not very visible with all of the city lights infringing on our night vision.  But yet if want to see the lights of the heavens we have to spend time going out in the darkness of night.  If we truly want to be a light shining in the darkness of the world for all to see we need to take that light to the people who live in the darkness of night and let them be witness to it.  But wait.  There’s more.  

When Matthew quotes Jesus saying “let your light shine before others so they may see your good works” he doesn’t stop right there like we would like Him to.  He continues to say “and give glory to your Father in heaven!”  Not for our glory, but for the glory of God.  If we do good deeds for our own ego and our own intentions of looking better than others, we fail to be the true stars in the darkness.  These sort of acts sound nice, but like the artificial light that obscures the real light in the night skies, it becomes washed out and doesn’t truly illuminate anything.  It hides the very thing we are trying to see.

The real darkness of the night; whether an ordeal more unbearable than most people will ever know, a continuous streak of bad times day after day, or the unimaginable feeling of being separated from God as described in St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul”, the real darkness of the night requires us to stand in it and with those who live there, and bring our light to them.  When we are the stars in the darkness we must allow ourselves to be part of what others experience.  And when we do this not for our own notoriety but for the glory of God, we will be those humble stars that light up the night and stand out in their uniqueness.  The acts will glorify God in every sense of the word. 

            There are many true lights here among us, sitting along-side of us day in and day out, week after week, who truly epitomize Matthew’s gospel of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  What is even more special is that they will never mention it to anyone.  Most of what they do goes unnoticed in the eyes of the general public and that’s the way they want it.  Their acts are not for themselves but for the glory of God.  For this we are eternally grateful.  I mentioned St. John of the Cross and the “Dark Night of the Soul” – if you’ve not read it yet, I encourage you to find the time someday to do so.  Not only because it’s a spiritual literary classic but because it may help you understand some of the darkness you may or may not have already encountered in your lives and be a guide of how to turn from being in the dark to being one of the lights.  A contemporary and friend of his, St. Teresa of Avila says something similar.  She says; “Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which He looks with compassion on this world.  Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  I honestly thank you, for being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the body of Christ to so many in so many ways.  And thank you for doing it for the glory of God.  Amen.    

Citations:  RCL Year A, 5th Sunday after Epiphany                 Deacon Pete           

Thieves on Each Side

February 24, 2013 1 comment

I hang in contradiction to myself on both sides of the cross; a thief in either case, a sinner. Not thought to be redeemable in most people’s society. Not worthy to be given a second chance in this world of flesh and blood. At once I’m both humble and arrogant. As much as I beg to be remembered in another world, I’m also capable of rejecting the One that can bring me the forgiveness I need in this one.
Encountered each day is a choice of being one thief or the other. As we recognize what latches onto our attention in life we must also come to terms with what can either ignite our souls or make us numb to our surroundings. One thief hangs his head in anger and turns away, just as we turn our heads from most uncomfortable situations. Consider the man with the handwritten “homeless” sign on the street corner. Is this person in our midst really in pain and suffering? How do we know? Do we ignore them and condemn them even more because we don’t want to admit how much they remind us of ourselves? Or maybe how much worse off we could easily be than they are? Or are they in truth in the same condition we are in, but we choose to ignore our own reality and refuse to acknowledge that their pain is also our relief? Why are we repulsed? The choice is ours. Easily enough, we ridicule them, expecting this to ease our own pain through it.
At the same time the other thief awakens for a moment, drawn into the face of this person before them; this face that shows up on our street corner. All of a sudden we remember. We feel. Compassion consumes us. This world may have taken its toll on us both, but we are not done. And we are not alone. Because this face is also the face of the one who invites us in, arms open wide, inviting us in to share the pain, to be with them in and through the pain. The pain is real. The face is real. The cross is real. The sorrow flows outward and into this world like the blood that drips from the face, hands, feet, and wounds from leather stripped skin of that one who hangs on the cross between us.
Yes, between us, between two thieves, between two sinners. One too caught up in his own sorrow to recognize how close forgiveness is; one too alive in his own death to allow this world to pass away without a second chance. Which thief will I be?