Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jesus People and Violence in America

As a Christian and a Preacher called to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel in good times and bad, the past two weeks have been a challenge. Two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers, one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the other in a Minneapolis suburb. Then before we as a nation could come to grips with these tragedies, five police officers in Dallas, Texas, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens, were killed by a sniper near the end of a peaceful demonstration by the group “Black Lives Matter.”

We also know that there were others in America who died violently last week in situations which did not make the national news and which were less politically charged. These losses of life were no less important to the loved ones of those who died or to we as a people.

How do we who are followers of Jesus, “the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” respond to these actions and the divisions the either cause or point out in our nation?

I want to begin looking for an answer by looking at the Gospel which was read at Christ Episcopal Church in Albertville, Alabama, and many other churches this past Sunday.

We read in Luke 10:25-37, that a lawyer stood to test Jesus, and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We know the story, Jesus asks him what is written in the law, and he responds, “you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” When the lawyer tries to justify himself by asking, “who is my neighbor,” Jesus tells him and the crowd the story of the ‘Good Samaritan.”

He then asks the man, “who then was the neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” To this he responds, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then challenges him to “Go and do likewise.” So this is my beginning: as Jesus People, as Christians, we begin with scripture and we open our hearts to that scripture together. This is not the starting place for all people today. Often we begin by choosing sides. We either choose the police, or we choose “Black Lives Matter.” I believe Jesus would choose both, just like he choose Samaritans lives matter and lawyers lives matter.

As many others are doing I have been watching Dallas, Texas to see if there are lessons we can learn from them. I have seen police and civilians of all races embracing one another and supporting one another. I have read of Sergeant Ed Trevino, a member of the “Heroes, Cops and Kids Community Campaign work to build better relationships between police and civilians by sharing concerns and listening to one another. His advice to all of us: “communicate and make sure you have all facts before deciding who is right and who is wrong.”

Dallas has strengthened my belief that we are all in this together: police and civilians, black, white, yellow, brown, Christian, Moslem and Jew. If not, we are in deep trouble. As Sergeant Trevino says, “the vast majority of people out there are good people and we have to band together rather than divide.

Our world is not simple, there are competing philosophies and ideas and it is important to hear the words of others and try to understand where they are coming from just as it is important for them to hear and try to understand us. Will this be easy? No. Can we with our human wisdom and knowledge alone solve the problems of violence and division? Probably not, but if we build our foundation on the solid rock that is our God and on the foundation of the Prince of Peace, than there is truly hope that we as human beings will find the “peace that passes all understanding.”

“Which one was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” “The one who showed him Mercy.”

“Go and do likewise!”

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Holy Week: A Journey with Jesus

The week, beginning with Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday and culminating with the Sunday of the Resurrection, Easter Day, is for Christians the holiest week of the year. In fact, many Christian Denominations refer to this time as “Holy Week.” I see this week as “a time out of time,” as well as the nexus of “time and eternity” itself. The week is both historical and beyond history. It brings together the hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows of all humanity. In it we see the “good, the bad and the ugly” of what it means to be human. Holy Week is schizophrenic to the point of making our heads spin and yet through it and in it we get a glimpse of God’s presence in creation and in our lives.

Holy week begins with two powerful stories which are very much at odds with each other. First we see Jesus coming into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey with leafy branches being waved and being welcomed as the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We might also imagine Pontius Pilate coming into the city from the other side on his stallion, and in all his armor and glory as he enters in the name of the Emperor, the one who proclaimed himself the “Son of God.” As our worship continues on this day, we move very quickly to the betrayal, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. We experience both the glory of God and the sinfulness of the Children of God. In the Episcopal Church, our worship allows us, no, forces us, to remove our “rose colored glasses,” and see and experience the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. This day, and all of Holy Week, is truly an example of the Greek word, “anamnesis” which means “to remember,” in the sense of “participate in the experience.” We walk the journey with Jesus on this day and for the rest of the week.

Holy week builds toward what (Liturgical) Christians call the “Sacred Triduum,” or “Holy Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. In the Episcopal Church worship on these three days is not considered to be three separate worship services, but 3 segments of one continuous worship experience or liturgy. On Maundy Thursday, we continue our walk with Jesus as we hear, “The Lord Jesus, after he had supped with his disciples and had washed their feet, said to them, ‘do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done. I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” In this experience we experience the beginning of the end, but perhaps a vision of a new beginning as well. We leave worship in the dark and in silence as we move toward day two of our Holy Three Day Journey.

Day two, Good Friday begins in silent prayer followed by the following prayer: “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” We then experience the depths of the Lord’s Passion as it is read out loud from the Gospel of John: the last supper, the betrayal, the trials before the High Priests and Pilate, Jesus’ brutal death on the cross, and his burial. Again, we leave in silence and sadness.

And finally at the Great Vigil of Easter or on Easter Day, our anamnesis, our participation in Jesus’ journey takes us back to the grave in sadness, only to be told that “he is not here for he is risen!” We celebrate the resurrection, the light of Christ coming back into the world: “Dear friends in Christ: on this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which by hearing his word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death. . . .for we are buried with Christ in his death, and raised with him to newness of life.”

What a blessing! But the blessing is not just in the resurrection and its celebration. The blessing is in the Anamnesis, in the remembering by participating in not only the resurrection, but in the birth, life and death of Jesus as well.

“Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

(We at Christ Church, 607 East Main St., Albertville, invite all to join us for Holy Week: Palm Sunday at 9:30 a.m.; Maundy Thursday at 6:00 p.m.; Good Friday at 6:00 p.m.; Easter Day at 9:30 a.m.)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

In Christ we are a New Creation, Great! And Ambassadors for Christ! Oh Man, Why! With a little help from Pat Conroy (RIP)

Spending some time in the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians I ran across some exciting as well as somewhat troubling news. “If anyone is in Christ he or she is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new. All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” This really is exciting, that no matter who we are or what we have done, the old can be put away and all, through the Grace of God, becomes new. It is also rather frightening that we, like Jesus are called to be reconcilers. Frightening because to be reconcilers we have to admit that we may be wrong as well as right, we must at times find the strength to apologize and to forgive. Jesus taught us how to do this, but it does not make it any easier in practice. I suspect this was the reason Paul wrote this letter to the church at Corinth. I suspect they were having “church squabbles” which may have been turning into church fights. Paul is reminding them of who they are and “whose they are.”

Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians (and by extension, us) that we are truly “Ambassadors for Christ, since God makes his appeal through us.” The best plan God has for reaching the world is through us.  While some people may wander into a church or other “house of God,” most do not. Many people will, however, run into us: at the grocery store, at work, on the ball field or the gym. They will see how we act when things go our way and when they do not, and they “will know we are Christians (or not) by our love.”

Paul proclaims that because of Christ’s righteousness we can become the righteousness of God. Filled with the righteousness of God we can recognize that all of us have burdens which are unknown to those others, that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. This knowledge alone can help us find reconciliation with one another as well as with God.

The Church, the Body of Christ in the World provides space where this reconciliation can take place. The church is really a people joined together by our baptism: a people called to love not judge, to forgive not to hold on to a grudge, to apologize rather than encourage grudges in others,  and to realize that relationships are more important than our human need to always be right. This is not easy since in addition to being Ambassadors for Christ, we also happen to be human. But, the community of the local church gives us a place of beginning.

As I write this I have just been made aware that Pat Conroy, one of my favorite writers, died last evening, may he rest in peace. Conroy’s writings were filled with relationships, “good, bad and ugly,” relationships with himself as with those around him. His books deal with relationships that can be mended and relationships that are beyond all hope of redemption. He also deals with that most important of all relationships, that with oneself. We learn from Conroy, just as we learn from Scripture, that “life is not always easy, that relationships can be difficult and tragic. Conroy’s works also show us that abuse, inequality, depression and addiction affect the way we treat others and our selves, sometimes tragically so.

In his writing, Pat Conroy allowed us, in fact, forced us to look at all of these issues as well as at the importance of good therapy and medication, and the hard work of building and rebuilding relationships. He shows us that it is not enough to ask God to release us, but that we must use the tools God has given to the world which can help us to be reconcilers and to be reconciled.

As Jesus and Pat Conroy and Jimmy Buffett say, “The God’s honest truth is it’s not that simple.” BUT, it is more than doable when we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.”

The Prodigal Son/Forgiving Father/Offended Older Brother

Life can get complicated, relationships can get complicated and knowing that I am sometimes wrong is a concept with which I struggle every day. I believe this has been true as long as human beings have lived on Earth. It certainly appears that this was true in Jesus’ day and through his best known and longest parable He takes the opportunity to teach his followers (and us) a little bit about relationships with our neighbors and with God.

Most of us who are Christians, have been Christians, or know someone who is a Christian, know at least a little of the Story. The younger son believes he is ready to start out on his own, seeking his fame and fortune. He convinces Dad to give him his share of the inheritance and sets out footloose and fancy free to change the world, or at least his part of the world. After a period of time: weeks, months, years, he has exhausted his funds and lost his friends and ends up feeding the pigs, not a cool job for a young Jewish man. He decides (scripture says he “came to himself”) to go back to his father and beg to become one of his servants. As most of us know, the father runs to meet him, welcomes him home as a son and throws a big party to celebrate. The older, “responsible,” brother hears the noise, asks the reason and then becomes terribly jealous when he finds out what is going on. The older brother will not enter the party, the father comes out to him (sound familiar?) and reminds him that he loves him too and that he is his beloved son as well.

Obviously this is a story about God, a God who loves us all, even in the midst of our human propensity to make really bad decisions and mistakes, and very often to blame them on someone else. It is just as obvious that Jesus tells this story to teach us something about human relationships as well. Most of us believe that we are more often right than wrong, that we are smarter and more faithful than the next person and that if we do have problems they are caused by someone else.

In preparing to preach tomorrow at Christ Episcopal Church in Albertville, Alabama, I also read from St. Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 5:16-21, which for me adds some light and even heat to Jesus’ Parable.  I share a few of my insights from this epistle:

"If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see everything has become new. All of this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation."

So God is not only reconciling us to Himself, but is giving us the ministry of reconciliation. We are called not only to be welcomed back by God as Sons and Daughters, but to see our brothers and sisters as sons and daughters of God as well. Easier to be welcomed by God than to welcome those who make us angry, receive more than they deserve, or drive us completely crazy.

But St. Paul continues: “and God has entrusted his message of reconciliation to us.” To us, why? “I am still angry, I don’t want to forgive, I want what is rightfully mine.” Back to Paul: “so, we are ambassadors for Christ since God makes his appeal through us.” If God makes his appeal through us, then he is calling us to be empathetic, to recognize that we may be wrong and others right, or vice-versa, but that no matter what, we are called to be “the righteousness of God,” we are called to stay connected to one another. We as Christians do this in many ways, but the most obvious and perhaps even most meaningful is when we go to the altar to receive the “real presence of Christ” in the Holy Communion and stand or kneel next to a person who has offended us, or a person who does not believe exactly the same as we do about Jesus, or a person who voted for a person we would not even speak to. At this moment, the Holy Spirit joins us together with the God of all Creation and with one another.

We are joined together because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and because of Him are truly “Ambassadors of Christ,” first to one another and then to the whole world.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Change, an Invitation to Life: The Journey Continues

Change, an Invitation to Life: The Journey Continues: As Jesus continues his journey toward Jerusalem (Luke 13:31ff), he runs into a group of Pharisees who warn him that Herod Antipas wants t...

The Journey Continues

As Jesus continues his journey toward Jerusalem (Luke 13:31ff), he runs into a group of Pharisees who warn him that Herod Antipas wants to kill him. Remember these are the people who the gospels tell us were some of Jesus’ greatest enemies and yet they warn him that his life is in danger. Just something to think about as we look at human relationships. Jesus tells them, “thanks, but no thanks.” He tells them in essence that “I must be about my father’s business: healing, casting out demons and doing and teaching those things God sent me into the world to do and teach. My journey must end in Jerusalem because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”

Jesus tells them and reminds us that he is a prophet, and that as a prophet he must proclaim God’s word, and FACE THE CONSEQUENCES. As we travel on our Lenten Journey we can learn from Jesus that God also calls us to be prophets, and that we too must proclaim God’s word and we too must FACE THE CONSEQUENCES. I do not know about you, but I get excited about proclaiming God’s word, less excited about facing the consequences. Since, however, this is our call, let’s look at some of the ways God gives us strength to do both.

In Genesis 15 we see God telling Abraham, “do not be afraid, because I am your shield, and your reward shall be great.” During this season of reflection, let’s claim this promise for ourselves. Psalm 27 also gives us encouragement: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? . . .One thing have I asked of the Lord; . . .One thing I seek that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. . .For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock.” These and other promises from scripture give us hope, courage and confidence that we can live the prophetic life to which we are called and face whatever consequences follow.

For Christians during our Lenten Journey this encouragement we find in scripture can be very practical: worship every Sunday; find a group with which to meet weekly for study, reflection and prayer; gather together as a body in the presence of our Bishop. We can also find encouragement in acts of kindness like keeping our community clean, or serving at a local homeless shelter or helping to meet other needs in our area.

Our Lenten Journey is a model, a paradigm, for our life’s journey. I know something about the journey’s of many of my friends, as well as many other people with whom I cross paths in the many facets of my life, but the journey I know best is my own journey and I share a portion of that journey with the hope that my journey will open a window for you into your own journey, your own life, your own prophetic calling.

Many years ago my journey took me to Ponce, Puerto Rico and later to Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. I was first in training to be in the United States Peace Corps, and then a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching at The National Forestry School in the Dominican Republic. I learned many things on this journey that helped make me the person I am and gave me some of the tools I needed to be a prophet and to face the consequences. First I learned patience, I learned that not everything comes quickly or easily. I learned that we live for the long haul and that many things worth knowing and doing are not learned easily or quickly, that they take hard work and lots of time.

I also learned the importance of listening. I began to understand that we learn more by listening than we do by talking. This was an easy lesson since I was learning Spanish at the time and I had to listen more than I talked. I spent many afternoons with my elderly land lady on her front porch drinking Shafer’s beer and listening, and listening, and listening to her talk in Spanish.  In an environment and culture so different from that with which I was familiar, I learned to “listen” with all my senses: to be open to sights, sounds, colors, smells, texture, and ideas which were different from those I brought to the table.

There was a sign in our Peace Corps Training center that stated: “Do not seek to understand, seek to be present, to experience; for understanding will come later, or not at all.” God calls us to be present in this world, to enter life with open minds, open hearts and open hands; to live life to the fullest. This is what our whole Lenten Journey is all about: to be open to God; to be open to All of God’s People; There is truly something to be said for film director, Woody Allen’s, proclamation that “showing up is half the battle.” Early Christian Monk, Brother Lawrence, calls this “practicing the power of the presence of God.”

May our Lenten Journey lead us to an understanding of the world around us, but mostly, may it lead us to understand ourselves, and our relationship to the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier of all life.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Pilgrimage, Journey, Life

Pilgrimage, Journey, Life

The Christian life, in fact, all life is a journey. There is a lot of truth in the old saying, “getting there is half the fun.” Not only is the fun in the journey as much as in the destination, but learning and growing are also more in the journey than in the arrival. We learn from our companions on the way; we learn from the experiences we have on the way, good or bad, pleasurable or painful, joyful or miserable.

Yes, all life is a journey, but for people of faith there are “journeys within the journey.” For Christians, the season of Lent is one of those journeys. The models for our Lenten Journey are the Gospel stories of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus is lead into the wilderness by the Spirit to be “tempted by Satan.” Jesus spends 40 days fasting, praying and, I believe, focusing on God’s call and plan for his life, and what that will look like for Jesus who is not only fully God but fully human. This wilderness journey was necessary for Jesus to really know within himself who he was and who God called him to be.

Lent gives us that same wilderness opportunity to wrestle with ourselves, to wrestle with our God and with our own demons; to face the same temptations Jesus faced. We too, on our earthly journey, will struggle with the temptations of comfort, power, possessions, fame and influence. Without setting aside time and space for reflection the struggles can turn out to be just that, struggles. With “wilderness time” they become opportunities for growth and learning.

Several years ago, falling into the temptation for power, possessions and fame, I was “given” one such opportunity for learning and growth. I had been, in my opinion, a successful Episcopal Priest: a good pastor, preacher and teacher. I was the Rector of a church which had grown from 130 to 500 members and from a budget of $70,000 a year to a budget of $250,000 a year. People said really flattering things about me, and some even proclaimed I would become a bishop. When I was called to a much larger church, with a much larger budget and a much larger salary, I jumped at it! After all, “there is nothing wrong with power and possessions and fame.”

As it turns out, I did not become the greatest priest in the World, I did not become a bishop, and I lost my job after two and a half years, thus affirming Jesus’ wisdom in turning down the tempter. As a part of my earthly pilgrimage, my life’s journey, it was life changing, and while not fun to go through (in fact it was quite miserable) for me, my family,  and lots of other people, this experience helped make me who I am, it helped make me stronger. The Christian season of Lent and the Christian traditions of prayer and meditation have been opportunities to reflect on the past, grow from those experiences and look toward the future, while living for today, the only day promised to any of us.

I want to add that out of this experience and reflection on it and praying about it, I learned many valuable lessons. I learned the importance of Mental Health Counseling and Anti-depressants as tools God uses along with our prayers and our friends to lead us out of the wilderness. I built (or was given) many friendships that have lasted for the past ten years and some of which will last a lifetime. These friendships have strengthened me and my faith, and while I did not become the greatest priest in the whole world, I have been given a vision and wisdom to invite God to be a part of my Pilgrimage.

During this Lenten pilgrimage my prayer for all of us is that we will ask ourselves three questions and then take the time and find the space to listen to the answers. Like Jesus, listen to the answers from God and from our own heart, mind and soul.  The questions are: 1) What is important to me? 2) Why is this important? 3) What now?

This Lenten Journey calls us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves (implying that we love ourselves first) to strive for Justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 305)

Blessings and Peace on your way, and remember, “Getting there is half the fun!”