Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Uncommon Ash Wednesday Sermon

This sermon was given last night, it reflects a profound hurt in the parish and what I hope is a pastoral response.

Ash Wednesday

I don’t think I can do this.
I don’t think we can do this.

It’s all too much. This week started with a funeral for a dear friend to all in this parish. This week will end with another funeral for one of our youth who was killed just yesterday morning in a car accident.

Last week I buried another of our youths, Matthew.

It’s too much Lord. This parish has had enough.

Here we all are, your broken people who come to this church for healing, but today, well today is not a time of healing. Today is a day of contrition, and ashes, and sorrow.

Well, Lord, we’re already there. We’ve already got the ashes, smeared all over our souls.

Sometimes the needs of the congregation are so great that they trump just about everything else. So, with Father Paul’s blessing, I have something to say to you. I have something to say to you that I’ve never heard on an Ash Wednesday:

You are excused.

You are excused from punishing yourself.

You are excused from denying yourself. You are excused from whatever you gave up, if that helps. To quote Father Paul, “Have another cookie.”

What this church needs now is to come together. What we need to give up is our walls. We will especially give up our walls that separate us from our young people.

But you will still observe Lent, you will still get your ashes, and you will still have self-examination as our Prayer Book dictates, but this needs to be self-examination focused on your relationship to the young people in this church. You will still repent, but especially of the sin of looking through the young people of this church, of being afraid or indifferent in your approach to them. And you will fast; you will fast from not eating with them. And you will deny yourself, so that you can reach out to one of them. And above all you will pray, you will pray daily for the youth of this parish. For too long we have simply let Matt and Jillian, and the youth advisors do all the heavy lifting of raising these kids in the faith. We all promised at their baptisms to do all in our power to support these persons in their life in Christ. You promised! Now make good on that promise. For Lent, give up not making good on that promise.

And guess what? They won’t like it. If I know youth, and if I remember my own youth (which wasn’t all that long ago), the truth is they will squirm a bit, and they WILL roll their eyes. But they won’t be able to help knowing, KNOWING, that we, all of us, love them, and want nothing but the best for them. And yes, we know their names, and we know who their parents are.

So you may have your own Lenten discipline. And all the priests here want to support you in that. But for this parish, well for Lent this parish is going to get to know our young people. We will reach out to them and learn who they are and what it means to be a youngster these days. Learn them, befriend them. And although they may squirm and protest they will know that we love them.

Good Lord they will know that we love them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon on Star Wars as hermeneutic

Sermon for 6 Epiphany B

This week the 3D version of the fourth Star Wars movie, which is actually the first episode, called The Phantom Menace, came out. As a child of the 80s, I can’t help but think that George Lucas is systematically, one movie at a time, attempting to dismantle my childhood. The original Star Wars movies were amazing, and the new ones, well the new ones just stink. I imagine that anyone under the age of twenty might disagree, and they are free to, but of course, they are wrong. They say the sequel is never the equal, but in the case of the Star Wars the prequel ain’t even close.
Not so with our readings today though. What we have in the gospel is something of a movie: Jesus heals someone and tells him to be quiet about it. But the healed man can’t help himself, he goes out, blabbing to anyone who will listen; so that while Jesus wanted to keep things quiet, he can no longer show his face in the towns for the fame that he now has. Jesus is a smash hit for his healings.
Now in the Old Testament, we get the story of Naaman. Naaman is a general who is not a friend of God, in fact he has captured at least one Hebrew woman. Well it turns out that Naaman has leprosy just like the man in the story with Jesus. We could see this reading as a prequel to the Jesus healing story. The woman that Naaman has captured seems like an uncommonly good person, because she has compassion on Naaman for his disease and tells him to go to Elisha the prophet. Naaman does and finally is healed, and commits himself to worshipping God. Here the prequel is the equal, someone is healed and begins to worship God.
So like Star Wars, we have an original blockbuster: Jesus the Healer. And like Star Wars we have a prequel: Naaman being healed and beginning to worship God. But what about the sequel? Is there a Empire Strikes Back to our New Hope? Is there something that comes after Jesus healing that is part of the same story?
Well as a matter of fact there is. It turns out that Jesus made plans for the sequel. In fact he even gave some coming attractions of it. You see, elsewhere in Jesus’ story he talks to some of his friends about feeding him when he was hungry, giving him a drink when he was thirsty, and visiting him when he was sick, or in prison. You remember this. His friends ask him back, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison?” Jesus answered them: “When you give water or food to someone who is thirsty or hungry, when you visit the sick and those in prison, then you did it to me.” This is the sequel: where we see Jesus in the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the prisoner. The thoughtful film buff might inquire, “If that is the sequel, shouldn’t it be in the same theme? After all we have Jesus healing, then in the prequel we have Naaman being healed, the sequel then should be the same thing: someone should be healed when in the presence of Jesus.
Yes! There is, but this sequel has a twist, often when we think of helping others, we think we do it because it is something that Jesus would do. And of course Jesus did visit and heal the sick, he did feed the hungry. But the twist comes with how Jesus’ described what we see when we help others. When us Christians are helping others, we don’t necessarily act like Jesus, so much as we look for Jesus. That’s what Jesus says, when we help others we are helping him, when we serve others we serve Him. This is the twist and it gets even better. What happens to people when they are in the presence of Jesus? They get healed, and why should we be any different? So the story of healing goes on, we are the sequel; a sequel with a twist. The twist is that we think we are visiting the sick, we think we are being Jesus, but Jesus keeps making guest appearances and cameos, Jesus keeps showing up!
Jesus talks in the Gospels about where we might find him in two distinct places. When we have Holy Eucharist, “this is my Body, this is my Blood.” And we trust that Jesus shows up, that’s why we take the Holy Eucharist so seriously, Jesus is here! The other place that Jesus says he will show up is in the faces and hurt of the sick, dying, hungry and imprisoned. And we take this seriously too, but it’s a little riskier to see Jesus in this way. Sometimes Jesus has a dirty face, or a criminal record, or looks just like someone we bitterly do not want to lose. But Jesus has always been risky, that’s what makes this particular character so compelling. We should be as serious about seeing Jesus in others as we are about seeing him in the bread and wine.
So here we are; we are a sequel people. We live out that theme that God has established in the life of Jesus, the life of Israel, and now the life of the Church. In terms of Star Wars, I guess that makes us The Empire Strikes Back, which is the darkest, and most interesting of all the Star Wars movies. But that also means that God has one more sequel in store, one more chapter in the saga; a Return of the Jedi if you will, where everything is revealed, where God is fully known to us and we truly accept who our Father is.
Until then, until that finale is released; let’s live the story, let’s go out and be healed by Jesus, here in the breaking of the bread and as we care for each other meeting Jesus face to face.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Vessel for holding anointing oil

pic done on iPhone with Camera+ app, on the altar at Saint John's = 4 prepositions in that sentence, now 5.

Funeral Sermon links for my theology class

Here are the links to some of my funeral sermons. These are good examples of occasional theology, the occasion gives rise to the theology. Note what I say and don't say re: the afterlife.



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sermon for fifth Sunday After the Epiphany

I hate to admit, but this topic is so thorny, that I didn't write this until an hour before it was presented. Please excuse any formal or theological stumbling blocks.

Sermon for fifth Sunday After the Epiphany year B

I have been simply struck dumb as I’ve dipped my toes into these priestly waters at how the lectionary lines up with the life of the parish. It almost looks like a divine hand that is working through the selection of our readings and the life of this parish. I think this is the best definition of how our scriptures are holy, they work on us to such an extent that we can actually see our lives reflected in them, they make a claim about our lives, and our life together. And today we get a doozy.

Here in our Gospel we have Jesus going and casting out demons and healing the sick. And what did we have this week at Saint John’s? No less than two funerals, several hospital admissions, and one devastating prognosis for our sister Jo Brock. In the Gospel reading the people bring the possessed and the sick to Jesus and he casts out the demons and heals the sick. In first century Palestine, being possessed by a demon and being sick were oft-times synonymous. So if we bring our friends to Jesus in prayer he will heal them, right?

But what happens when that doesn’t happen? What happens when hundreds of Christians pray for the healing of someone and the healing never comes? How can we talk of the unsurpassing power of God, the ultimate goodness of God, and still know that evil and degradation exists?

This past week I had one precocious 9 year old parishioner ask, “If God created everything, then why did God create cancer cells?” Why indeed? Did God create cancer cells, or did God create cells in a world where things can go wrong, where cells can rebel against their natural state and begin to fight with other cells. You see, God created a world that has the freedom to go wrong.

But doesn’t that mean then that God’s power is limited? If God is so powerful, then why would he create a universe that is capable of evil and loss? The answer is freedom of course, but it is so hard to talk about freedom in the culture without having a political discussion. The kind of freedom that God builds into the universe, even into our very souls, is the ultimate act of divine power.

What kind of God would control everything? What kind of powerful God would find it necessary to arrange every little heart and mind toward him? What kind of a powerful God would force us to love him? A monster-God that’s what; only an insecure and ultimately weak God lords his power over his creation.

Our God, THE God, creates a world where the creation can choose Him or not. Our powerful-God creates us to choose. In this freedom, which we are truly free to use to love or hate God, and each other, is the square-one of creation. From there we can move toward God in love, or away from Him in coldness and anger.

But, there is a real downside to this freedom that God builds into his creation. It allows for the existence of evil. I must quickly add that, even though God allows for the existence of evil, he does not will it. Evil is a by product of a finite universe, sin is the by product of freedom. God does not will evil to happen but suffers its existence for the sake of our freedom. Time and time again God does indeed overcome evil, the Bible is case study after case study in the triumph of God over evil: The exodus of the Hebrews from Slavery, the constant call of the prophets to return to God, and finally in the triumph over death by the raising of Jesus. God works through evil to show his ways, to create an Epiphany of himself within his creation.

So here we are: right in the middle of this creation, this free creation which houses bad cells, bad choices, cosmic and everyday evils. So what do we do? What do we do with Jo, and countless others who suffer and die right before our eyes? We do what we always do, we return to God, we don’t have to be cheery about it, we can ask questions, Why Lord? We go to God and we thank him for our creation. We thank him for those he has given us, if even for far too short a time. We thank God for our freedom: that we can choose him. We look to our creator and we thank him, even with pain and loss in our hearts, even with tear streaked faces we can freely go to our creator and sing his praises.

And there, in that moment, we might get a sense of the distinction between healing and curing. When we run to God in our distress, when we cry in his presence then maybe a healing can occur, even if a cure doesn’t.

There is no happy way to end this sermon. We will never be free of the ambiguity of our creation and existence with a powerful loving God in the midst of evil and sin. But we will sing his praises, we will confess our sins to him and each other, we will celebrate his death and rising until he comes again. And we will tell his story, the story of the powerful loving God, who allows for freedom, though we might suffer its consequences.

Join me now as we tell his story in the words of the Nicene Creed: We Believe in One God, the Father Almighty…

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Funeral Sermon, again, sheesh!

Here is yet another funeral sermon. This one for a local young man who had died all to young. I've taken out his name.

What a curious God we have!

How strange that He would create to begin with. How utterly strange are grass, and finches, chambered nautiluses, and seasons.

How strange that He would then create us.

Us: with our emotions, our various chemistries and impulses. How strange that God created us and imbued each of us with reason, skill, memory, and a beautiful bag of skin to hold all of that in.

What a curious God we have, that would work through history to reveal himself. What a strange thing it is for one outside of time to enter time. We see him most at work in the lives of those who are sensitive to his movements, in the life of Israel, in the life of the church. Of course history and our own lives are filled with the stories of those “God-moments,” those thin-places where God sometimes creeps, other times invades.

What a curious God that arranges things, arranges people, arranges meetings and leavings, arranges our coming and going. What a funny God we have that shines-through even in impossible darkness. What a curious God who would begin to prepare M’s family for his death. What a strange and loving God who would make M and his family, at least more prepared, no one is ever truly prepared for this, nor do they ever fully heal;but to begin to greet his death from far off, and then now, all too close. How interesting that God would bring M home from California, would gather in his family like He did; how strange that M and his mother would talk about God and the life of the spirit the night he died.

What a curious God we have that would come to us, to all of creation, as a creation, as a man. What a strange God who gets so weak, who takes on flesh; and comes to us as Jesus. Other gods are not like this, other gods lord their power over their subjects, but this God of ours becomes a subject. How strange that this God would come and take on flesh, only to grow and feel pain, to suffer and finally die. What a strange God that we have, who assumes all human suffering, and says, “I’ve participated in all of this with you, I am with you.”

A funny God he must be too to give us someone like M, at once so lovely and yet so difficult. One so charming and charismatic but also so hard to live with.

Strangest of all of course is that this curious God of ours made the claim and made good on the claim that death is not the last word. This God raised Jesus from the dead.

This is founding of our religion and it is that which allows us to sing alleluia, even here at the grave. It is this God that helps us to hope and know that we haven’t seen the last of M.

Indeed, it is this same curious God who enables us to participate in his own death and resurrection through the even-stranger Holy Spirit. God has made a meeting place for us and Him in the baptismal waters. Amazing things happen there in the baptismal waters: there we are grafted into the life of God, never to be removed.

C.S. Lewis in his novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, gives a beautiful account of baptism and I wonder if there might not be some parallels in it with Matthew.

It seems that Eustace, a young boy who was difficult and, at times, heard to bear, has become separated from his family. In his wanderings Eustace happens upon a dead dragon and in touching it, he becomes transformed into a dragon himself: beautiful and sharp. After several attempts of trying to transform himself back he finally falls frustrated and hopeless. Then Aslan the lion, the allegorical Christ in the Narnia books, arrives and leads Eustace to a pool and tells him to undress. After three attempts of trying to remove his sharp scaly skin he gives up. Aslan then tells Eustace that he must undress him, Eustace tells it this way: p109
“I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do.

The very first tear he made some deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it is worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. . . he peeled the beastly stuff right off -- just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt-- and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking then the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft is a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he called me-- I didn't like that much I was very tender underneath now that I know skin on-- and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. ” Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis, page 109.

What a curious God that would take us in so. What a loving and strange God that would meet us in the baptismal waters to peel off all the scales and sharp edges, and then unite us to his death and new life so much so that when Christ was raised, so were we. And to that we all say, “Thanks be to God,” thanks be to God for creating us, thanks be to God for giving us M and thanks be to God for redeeming us and including us in his death and resurrected life. AMEN!