Thursday, December 28, 2017

Here I am the Servant of the Lord! And the World turned Upside Down!

Here I am the Servant of the Lord! And the World turned Upside Down!

Earlier this week, on the morning of December 24, as some were already into Christmas Eve, we Episcopalians were jumping into the fourth Sunday of Advent with both feet as we read the Gospel from Luke 1 that stopped the world in its tracks, and then, through Mary’s proclamation, turned the world upside down!

            The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most
            High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called
 Son of God. . .  Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me
according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (from Luke 1:26-38)

After saying yes to the Lord, which she did not have to do, Mary states God’s dream for the world in some of the clearest words recorded in the Bible, while at the same time laying out Jesus’ mission and plan for all of us.

        My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: *the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, *he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, *and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, *to Abraham and his children for ever.

Truly the angel’s proclamation to Mary and Mary’s response turns the world upside down. Even though we proclaim “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the world teaches us, ‘I’ve got mine, you get yours,’ if you are poor you are just lazy,’ if you work hard you will have what I have.’

The evening news and our experience teach us that ‘the rich will be filled with good things and the hungry will be sent away empty.’ But, Mary and God teach us:

             “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; He
             has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

As the angel’s message convinced and convicted Mary of who she was, this season that lead us up to Christmas convinces and convicts us of who we are and of what is expected of us.

Mary’s song of praise will make most of us very uncomfortable. It will make us long for the birth of the Baby Jesus. A birth that is fun and exciting to celebrate and will not demand much of us. Yet!

But before we can get to that birth, we have to talk about turning the world upside down! We have to talk about the poor being feed and the rich sent away empty. We have to talk about what we see on the evening news, and about what is the world’s reality, and then we need to walk into God’s dream, which turns the world upside down. We, like Mary, are invited to respond, “behold, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”

Mary understood that her son was not sent into the world just to get us into heaven, but that he was sent to change the story of life on Earth; that he came into the world to ask the questions, sometimes through us: who deserves to eat? Who deserves to have health insurance? Who deserves safe housing and a good education? We may not find simple answers, but with God’s help we may well find intelligent solutions.

Being a child of God is not easy. Life gets complicated, but we all have our dreams. If our dreams can be merged with God’s dream, if with Mary, we can proclaim, ‘here I am the servant of the Lord,’ then we might just be like Mary, we might just bring Jesus into our world, we might just do what Jesus did.

God has a dream and we are part of that dream!

Prophetic Imagination

Over the past few weeks, we prepared for the coming of our Lord in many ways. One of the most important to our faith in God and our understanding of Jesus’ mission to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth as well as in Heaven is the work of the prophets. Remember that Biblical Prophets were not so much about predicting the future as they were about proclaiming God’s opposition to oppression and desire for justice for all people. The fifth century B.C. prophet we call Second Isaiah describes God’s passion quite well.

        The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year
of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (from Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

Remember, this was the text for Jesus’ first sermon, so let’s pay attention!

Some six hundred years after Isaiah, St. John the Evangelist records the words of another prophet, a man who became one of the first to testify to Jesus as “the light,” John the Baptizer.

            There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a
witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He
himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. . . He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way
 of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. (from John 1:6-8,19-28)

As we prepare for and live into Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord, I see us as John the Baptist and Isaiah all rolled into one. “The Lord has anointed us, God has sent us to testify to the light, and sometimes as we do this we are truly voices crying in the wilderness. And yet, cry we must: “prepare the way of the Lord, bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance (to the oppressors) of our God.”

As we do this, we often learn one other truth about prophets: they are not usually the most loved people in the community. And yet, because of our baptism, and our covenant with God through that baptism, we do it anyway. “We proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. We seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. (Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, pages 305-305)

We proclaim this in all that we say and do, both as individuals and as a faith community. We proclaim it through our faith, our politics and our personal actions. We remind our elected representatives of God’s call to strive for justice and peace among all people. We remind those with whom we come into contact to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  And then we remind them that it all belongs to God!

The Season of Advent calls us to talk the talk, to speak truth to power. Advent calls us to walk the walk, to be prophecy in action. As God’s people we are called in our preaching, teaching, music and protesting to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is the work to which we have all been commissioned: to name God and to voice God’s enduring concern about human suffering and despair and to proclaim what God has done through Jesus Christ. To prepare the way of the Lord!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Advent: Mystery, Time out of Time, Take a Deep Breath

In our fast paced lives most of us need a reason or an excuse to slow down; to stop, look and listen; to put down our phone, turn off our computer and hide our iPad. For many of us that reason, excuse, opportunity, is the season of Advent. At this time of year, the world is preparing for Santa Clause, parties and dinners, and shopping. Did I mention shopping? At the same time, Christians, when at our best, are taking a deep breath, opening our hearts and souls to mystery and preparing for the coming of Christ. Yes, we do prepare for the coming of a baby, the Christ Child, but it is more than that. In our slowing down we prepare for the mystery of the coming of the Cosmic Christ at the end of time, and for the coming Christ into our hearts to change how we live and move and have our being.

As we breathe deeply and delve into the Advent Scriptures, the mystery of life, love and God envelopes us. Bible Scholars call these readings Apocalyptic; readings filled with mystery, hope and symbolism which say much more to us than mere words can ever say.

Isaiah (64:1-9) prays that “God would rend (tear open) the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at his presence. . . For you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Isaiah envisions a Cosmic God, a God shrouded in mystery, whose power over creation will catch out attention, whose love will overcome God’s own anger. In powerful, symbolic language, Isaiah reminds us, and God, that we are the created and God is the Creator, and that no matter what, no matter what, we are all God’s people, and thus one with each other.

The Gospel of Mark 13:24-37, in what scholars call the “Little Apocalypse” adds to Isaiah’s proclamation with the mystery and the power of Christ’s coming: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. . . But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert for you do not know when the time will come.

Thus the New Year, the Christian New Year, begins! Advent is the epilogue and the prologue, moving from the end toward the beginning: Cosmic Christ, to John the Baptist preparing the way, to Mary agreeing to God’s call to be the mother of the Messiah, the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Mighty God the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

So slow down, treasure the mystery, live into the ambiguity, and keep awake!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant: Use it or Lose It

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant: Use it or Lose It
Reflections based on Matthew 25:14-30

When we use the gifts and talents we have received from God we get better at them and they increase. We learn more, we gain confidence, and our abilities and skills grow and deepen. I believe this is the primary point of Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Two of the servants took the time and energy to invest the money in a way that it doubled in value. The third did not. He simply buried it in the ground. Not only did his money not grow, but what he had disappeared.

The Greek word translated as talent means “a measurement of mass and weight and its equivalent value.” In Jesus’ parable I believe the English word talent can be taken both in its literal meaning as well as “a measurement of economic value.” I really don’t believe that God takes our talents away from us. I believe that when we don’t use them they simply shrivel like unused muscles shrivel up and become useless.

This past weekend I attended a photography workshop in which I began to use some of my unused talents. I have a good eye, I take decent photos and I have a good camera, but my “photographic” muscles were shriveling up from lack of use. I had not studied the guide book for my camera or practiced new or different skills. I had not increased the gifts God had given me. As I read the instructions and practiced new skills I become curious about the camera’s potential and my potential. I ask questions of the instructor and the other participants and I learned new things from them. “If we don’t use it we lose it.” If we use our gifts and talents we get better and contribute more to our world and to God’s Kingdom. Whatever our gifts and talents, the more we use them, the more God can and will use us to change the world, to make it better. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I will work and improve myself and be ready and perhaps one day, my chance will come.”

So, what is our responsibility to our Master, to each other, to creation, to this planet? What are we called to be and to do in God’s Kingdom.

Today we are the faithful servants who hear God’s call, receive the gifts and talents, invest them and double them for the building up of God’s Kingdom. We hear Jesus’ call and follow him. God calls us to be what we were created and baptized to be: children of light, children of the day, co-creators of the Kingdom. God has a message, a word for our day, but—no one will hear or see it unless we invest our talents, unless we use our spiritual muscles and strengthen them.

When we hear, “well done good and faithful servant—we will know that God’s Kingdom is near!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Tapestry of Life, the Tapestry of Scripture

Life is truly a tapestry, a weaving of shapes and sizes and colors, gifts and talents that proclaim the beauty of God’s people throughout the world. One of my favorite songs, “Weave” by Rosmary Crow says it much better than I can.

We are many textures, we are many colors, Each one different from the other.
But we are entwined with one another in one great tapestry.

Weave, weave, weave us together, Weave us together, in unity and love. 
Weave, weave, weave us together, weave us together, together in love. 

Just think for a moment about the idea of being woven together, being entwined with a rainbow of God’s people, realizing that we depend on one another for the abundant life that God promises to all of us. Not only are we connected by our need for and production of food, clothing and shelter, but we are connected and bound together in our search for beauty, joy and meaning in life.

I want to look at the human tapestry through the lens of another tapestry, a tapestry of scripture and a parable or two both ancient and modern. As the light reflects off the many colors and textures of this tapestry we may see facets of our humanity we have never before seen. So, fasten your seat belts and let’s go for a ride.

I begin with a portion of Psalm 90 (vss. 1-6, 13-17) showing in a powerful way the foundational relationship between God and all of creation, including human beings.
Lord, you have been our refuge *from one generation to another.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.
16 Show your servants your works *and your splendor to their children.
17 May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; *prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.

The Psalmist weaves a beautiful tapestry of God and Creation, of land and earth and sky and sea. He weaves in a vision of all the works of creation for all of God’s Children to see, and finally the strand of human creativity and partnership with God in the creation and building of God’s Kingdom.

In and around this strand I now weave the strand of Jesus’ command to us from Matthew 22:34-46:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered
together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Remember Jesus teaches this lesson in the context of the Parable of the “Good Samaritan.”
The strand puts even more emphasis on the two basic relationships of human life, the relationship between human beings and God and the relationship between each of us and all other people with whom we share this “fragile Earth, our Island home.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 370).

Finally our “friend,” St. Paul wraps a colorful strand around this portion of our tapestry with these beautiful and powerful words.

              As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness,
              humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a
              complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you
              also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything
              together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which
              indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)

These passages of Holy Scripture, woven together in a bright tapestry truly proclaim that our faith is not just a list of rules and regulations and lines that put some in and others out. Our faith is above all else, Relationships: relationship with God and relationships with all of God’s people, on earth as well as in heaven.

I add one last strand, a modern day parable of relationship and community which brings together the foundations of our faith, Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

Long ago and far away I was very much involved in leadership with the Boy Scouts of America. During that time I lead a crew of sixteen scouts and five adult leaders on an adventure trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron New Mexico. On our last day the crew of eight with whom I was hiking was ascending the “Tooth of Time,” by a very steep and narrow trail. About half way up one of the boys, a high school football star fullback, backed up against the rock wall and stated, “I’m not going any farther, I am not going up or down, I am going to stay here the rest of my life.” He was truly paralyzed with fear. I tried to persuade him, his hiking partner tried to encourage him, and he again responded, “I am going to stay here the rest of my life. At this point, his entire crew surrounded him with love, confidence and courage, three in front of him and four behind. They encouraged him to take “one step at a time,” and walked with him, “one step at a time.” The entire crew arrived at the top and all were rewarded, not only by the beautiful views, but by the sense of accomplish and teamwork and renewed confidence in themselves and in the team. And the one who was afraid had renewed his courage.

We are many textures, we are many colors, Each one different from the other.
But we are entwined with one another in one great tapestry.
Weave, weave, weave us together, Weave us together, in unity and love. 
Weave, weave, weave us together, weave us together, together in love. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Give to the Emperor the Things that are the Emperor’s And to God the Things that area God’

(Based on a Sermon Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Albertville, Alabama on 10/22/17)

In the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22 we see a group of religious and civic leaders plotting to entrap Jesus, saying,

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Certainly Jesus is moving people in the proper direction. He knows that God is higher than the state, but that there are important functions that are proper for the state to carry out. The State is charged with promoting the welfare of all of its citizens, and maintaining law and order and protecting its citizens from dangers, both internal and external. But, when a nation oversteps the mark and puts itself in the place of God, Christians are, in the last resort, absolved from obedience. We must obey God rather than other human beings. (Remember Daniel in the Lions’ Den)

But, when we as God’s people do disobey human laws, we also must be prepared to face the consequences: the law is the law, until it is changed, even if it is unjust. The consequences can include jail, job loss, ridicule, loss of friends and even death. People and groups whose allegiance to God and principle has exceeded their allegiance to state and have paid the price include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks; and many others who have worked for justice and peace in our world. Oh, and did I mention Jesus.

In light of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22, what is the proper relationship between God and the emperor, what is the proper Biblical attitude toward the State today?

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-36)

And to this I might add, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”(Matthew 7:12) God Calls us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Based on this foundation, what is the Christian attitude toward war, the death penalty, elections, health insurance, welfare, feeding the hungry and peaceful protests? For Episcopal Christians, which is the group with which I am most familiar, the answer includes both “good news and bad news.” The bad news is that we don’t all agree on these and many other issues, nor do we even agree on what the Bible, and even Jesus, have to say. The good news is that we are committed to Christ and to each other and are willing to live into the tension and ambiguity, with the hope that as we journey together, the Holy Spirit will lead us and guide us into all truth. Having said this let’s look at some of the Biblical reasons for our confusion and disagreement:

“my peace I give to you/I came not to bring peace but a sword, I came to divide families.” “if you don’t work you don’t eat/anyone who gives a cup of water or food in my name shall reap their reward.” “And when did I do this to you?” “Whenever you did it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters.”

As the Church, the Body of Christ, we must listen to scripture, we must listen to one another, we must find ways to serve together, “doing unto others as we would want others to do unto us.” We must speak out against the evil we see in the world, even if the evil we see is the good our neighbor sees, and the neighbor must have the right to do the same, even if our neighbors’ good is our evil. And then, we must be able to talk about our differences with respect and open ears, open hearts and open souls. God calls me to respect you even if I do not respect the laws you embrace or the people for whom you voted, and God calls you to do the same.

This is not easy. It is always dangerous when we choose God over the Nation, especially when we disagree on what we are seeing. This is why we need each other; this is why God sends us the Holy Spirit daily.

Last week my wife and I were in Charleston, South Carolina, a city of beauty and history. On a boat trip in the harbor we noticed many interesting and beautiful sites, but one particular facet caught my attention. Charleston is a very “short” city: the tallest building is 11 stories and most buildings are three stories or less. There are, however, many tall Church Steeples, which can be seen from all over the city as well as from the water. As it turns out, no building is taller than the tallest church Steeple.

What a perfect metaphor for Jesus’ message in this story: “sure, give the emperor what belongs to him, and give to God what belongs to God. . .but, did I mention, IT ALL BELONGS TO GOD!


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Honor Jesus, Be Like Jesus, Honor Jesus by Being Like Jesus

When I read Philippians 2: 1-13, I usually speed through the prose introduction and then focus on the Poem/Hymn that follows it.

Today I want to hurry through the poem and then focus on the introduction, which just might give us a better idea about what God is calling us to do.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient
to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly
exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the
name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under
the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the
glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-8)

This is what we normally think of when we hear this scripture, and it is right and appropriate to honor and respect Jesus. Paul is showing us Jesus as our role model: praising him, extolling him, showing us his humanity, and how Jesus gave of himself to serve others. He truly is worthy of our bowing done, of our “taking a knee” in worship and respect of Him. In the Church, in our Nation and in our families we show respect and honor and where appropriate, worship by kneeling or standing.

The Comedian, Robin Williams, himself an Episcopalian, gives a list of ten reasons to be Episcopalian: my three favorites are “no snake handling,” “no matter what you believe there is at least one other Episcopalian who believes the same thing,” and one of my favorites, “Pew Aerobics.”

“Pew Aerobics?” In the Episcopal Church, we make the sign of the cross, with or without Holy Water, we bow when the cross passes, we sometimes lift our hands up in praise. Traditionally, we sat to be instructed, we stood to sing and praise and we knelt to pray, including at the altar as we received communion. Over time, our understanding of prayer and praise has evolved and blended so that some now stand to pray as well as kneel to pray, again including receiving communion at the altar.

Having said all this, I want to now focus on why I believe Paul wrote this poem in the first place. I believe that while Paul was concerned about tradition and order, he was more concerned that we worship Jesus by how we live and how we see and talk about and think about and serve our fellow human beings.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

This is truly a foundation for “honoring Jesus by being like Jesus.” It is important to remember that being of the same mind does not mean that we all agree on exactly how we understand scripture, or politics or the kind of car we drive, or even our preference for Auburn or Alabama football. No. It means that we agree on the essence of the poem, that we agree on serving the world as Jesus served the world. That we approach God and all of God’s people, not with selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regarding ourselves not as better or worse than others, but equal to one another in the eyes of God.

As we strive to see the interests of others as equal to and as important as our own interests, several examples come to mind: the 2010 and 2011 Tornados in Alabama, and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria which have struck our nation over the past several weeks. We these disasters occurred: friends, neighbors, the Red Cross, the State and Federal Governments, churches and other organizations joined in to care for those affected, to care for one another.

Those who look to the interests of others include all who write laws for safety and protection, all who protest peacefully for the safety and protection of others, and yes, even those who like Jesus, sometimes turn over tables and run the “Money Changers out of the Temple” for the protection and safety of others.

Again, Philippians 2:1-4:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

Honor Jesus, be Like Jesus, honor Jesus by being like Jesus!