Monday, February 23, 2015

In the words of Vince Lombardi . . .

"What the hell is going on out there!?!?"

We have a young guy who showed up looking for help awhile ago.  I let him stay in the church while I was here, found a little food for him, and generally didn't try to kick him out.

He and I have developed a sort of relationship in which, among other things, he knows this is a safe place.

About a week ago, he began telling me how the cops were following him and harassing him.  The way cops have been behaving around the country lately, this wouldn't surprise me.  But then it moved from there to being constantly followed, believing that they were trying to arrest him through entrapment because he walked by a school bus, and having to hide out in the woods to avoid the helicopters.

On Ash Wednesday there was a homeless looking guy who showed up in the parish hall around 11:30 or so.  I made a point to introduce myself to him and let him know he was welcome to stay.  He ended up coming to service, and at both the imposition of ashes and at Communion he came forward in tears.

After service he said he wanted to talk with me, so we went into the chapel.  He talked, I listened ... for close to an hour.  During that time I heard that the only reason he was born was because his dad wanted to train someone in the drug/criminal family business.  How his dad beat him if he didn't do the job right.  How he learned to operate on dogs in order to insert plastic bags full of drugs into them and stitch them up again so they could run drugs.  How he can't swallow pills because he chokes on them, but that he's addicted to pills and will empty a whole bottle in two days.

"I'm not a bad human being," he said, "I'm just a horrible person."

And yesterday after services, another homeless looking guy came in because he needed "to be around holy people."  I told him he could stay as long as I was there.  At some point he came into my office after everyone had gone home, wanting to talk.  He talked .... I listened.

I listened to how he had gotten himself involved with evil people and didn't know how to get out of it.  How they were planning some big major evil event.  How they had a girl that they prostituted out to get their money.  How they were going to pin all this on him.  How they were going to kill him if they knew he was talking to anyone.  How the FBI was tailing him.  How the FBI tried to get him to talk to an informant to get information about the gang.  How the cops wanted him to provide information.  How the cops were going to kill him if he didn't provide that information.

"So," I said, "you're telling me that you honestly think you are going to die no matter what you do."
"That's right.  Would you pray for me?"

So I prayed.

"I feel better now.  Thanks."  And off he went.

So . . . How is your Lent going?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon; Lent 1B; Mark 1:9-15

It seems like we just heard this gospel passage.  Wasn't it just a couple of weeks ago that we heard the story of Jesus being baptized?  In reality, it was six weeks ago on the first Sunday after the Epiphany.  The difference between then and now is that now we get to hear about Jesus in the wilderness.

After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness.  In Matthew and Luke Jesus is led by the Spirit.  But in Mark, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit.  This is a much more dynamic, some might say violent, view of how Jesus came to be in the wilderness.  That dynamism also plays a part in the temptations of Jesus.

The Spirit drives out Jesus, just as Jesus will later drive out demons and evil spirits from people possessed.  While in the wilderness he is confronted and tempted by Satan.  Question:  How many times was Jesus tempted?  Question:  What were those temptations?  The answer to both is, “It depends on which gospel you read.”

In Mark's gospel, the one we heard today, the answer to those questions is, “We don't know.”  One understanding of this passage is that Satan tempted Jesus for not only the entire forty days, but all the way up to his crucifixion.  That is significant.

In Eucharistic Prayer D, we recognize that Jesus “lived as one of us, yet without sin.”  This sentence confirms and upholds the orthodox doctrine that Jesus was fully human – he lived as one of us – and fully divine – yet without sin.  But I think that in the context of worship, especially in the context of Communion, we focus more on Christ’s divinity than we do on his humanity.  That's not bad, it just is; especially in worship.

So I want to focus on the humanity aspect for a bit.  An essential part of Church doctrine is Jesus' full humanity.  This, again, is reflected in that line from Eucharistic Prayer D, “He lived as one of us.”  It also shows up in Hebrews 4:15 when the author writes that Jesus was tempted, or tested, in every way as we are.  Or maybe I should say that the doctrine shows up in Hebrews and also in the BCP to avoid my Episcopal bias of elevating the BCP.  Either way, Jesus lived as a human and was tempted and tested as a human.

Abba Anthony once said, “This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”  To expect temptation to our last breath.  In Mark, this would seem to be the case with Jesus.

Notice that Mark tells us Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.  Also notice that, unlike in Matthew and Luke who record Satan leaving Jesus after the three temptations, Mark never says that Satan departed from Jesus.  We can infer from this that Jesus experienced what Abba Anthony said we would experience – temptation to our last breath.

This gives new meaning to the Passion when we read that people were calling out to Jesus as he hung on the cross to come down and save himself.

We get that scene in all three synoptic gospels.  The difference in Mark's version, though, is that Jesus has been experiencing daily temptations, beginning in the wilderness up to his last breath on the cross.

Let that sink in: Jesus experienced daily temptations.  From the temptation to remain in one place and increase in popularity daily, to encouraging those healed to spread the news, to taking out his enemies, to coming down from the cross, Jesus was tempted in every way and every day until his last breath.  That is some hardcore spiritual battle.

But that battle isn't any different than the ones we face.  Every day we are tempted to make ourselves great at the expense of others.  Every day we are tempted to glorify ourselves.  Every day we are tempted to make excuses for our wrong and sinful actions.  Read through the Litany of Penitence on pages 267-268 in the BCP.  Every day we are overcome by at least one of those temptations.

And every day Jesus was confronted with those very same temptations.

The doctrine of fully human and fully divine has caused arguments and confusion for two thousand years.  But rather than trying to explain it or understand it, maybe we should just appreciate it and take comfort in it.

On Ash Wednesday I talked about Lenten disciplines and how every year it seems that I fail at keeping any number of promises and vows made, falling back into life as normal.  And when I fail, and when I beat myself up for being weak, there always comes a point when I hear these words:  I get it; I've been there; No, it's not easy, but all you can do is make an honest effort and try again; Make a right beginning.

Those words come because Jesus was fully human.  Those words come because he was tempted in every way as we are.  Those words come because, like us, he was tempted until his last breath.

This Lent, work to make a right beginning.
This Lent, know you are not alone.
This Lent, take comfort in the words of a Savior who can say, “I get it.”

Because even though we are tempted to our last breath, and even though Satan is with us every step of the way, so is Jesus.  And that is good news.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

This was my A.W. sermon, as well as The Wednesday Word that I send out weekly to parishioners.  Yes, I double-dipped . . . So sue me.

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“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.  And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
Invitation to a holy Lent, final paragraph, BCP 265

Every year on this day, Ash Wednesday, we hear these words immediately before the imposition of ashes.  Every year we are called to observe a holy Lent through prayer, fasting and study.  Every year we are called to make a right beginning.  And every year it is that final sentence that eventually convicts me as guilty of being unable to live up to and into expectations, standards and vows made.

Every year I talk about giving something up for Lent and making sure to replace what we gave up with something else; because, really, giving something up just leaves a habitual hole that will eventually get filled with something equally bad if we aren't careful.  Give up sweets and replace them with baby carrots.  Cut down on energy drinks, replace it with basic water, and give the money saved to the discretionary fund.  Help protect the environment by reducing how many times you drive your car and figure out when and where you can walk or bike instead.  Give up one or two television shows and fill the time with reading Scripture or some other edifying work.  Give up a television show and fill the time with prayer.

The point of all this is not to feel like we are fasting 40 days and nights in the wilderness so that we are famished when Easter arrives.  The point of all this is not to endure Lent so that we can “get back to normal” after Easter.  The point of all this is not to make Lent miserable, but holy.  The point of all this is to make a right beginning.

Lent basically began as a lead-in to Easter.  “If we are going to celebrate the Resurrection and all that means,” those first Christians thought, “then maybe it would be helpful if we spent time contemplating the Resurrection and what it means for us and for all humanity.”  And so developed the custom of preparing for that holy time in what we now know as the season of Lent.  And also over time, unfortunately, Lent took on the tone of self-flagellation, reminding everyone what poor, miserable sinners they were, and got everybody singing, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms.”

But what it changed into misses the point that Lent is, or should be, a season of holy self-examination.  What it changed into was that Lent is about drawing closer to God.  What it changed into misses the point that Lent is about right beginnings.  And it's the right beginning that eventually convicts me as guilty of being unable to live up to and into expectations, standards and vows made.

Because although I make vows and set expectations and standards at the beginning of every Lent, I eventually fall short and fall back into old habits and patterns.  I fall back into those things because they are easy and mindless.  Eventually I find that I have returned to life as normal.  And just as certain that I will fail at some vow or expectation or standard and return to life as normal, it is just as certain that Ash Wednesday and Lent will arrive next year to politely request that I make a right beginning.

At baptism we are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.  The ashes you receive today are an outward and visible sign of that perpetual mark.  But unlike the one-time event that is baptism, and unlike the indissoluble seal given at baptism, discipleship is an everyday struggle with its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, successes and failures, falling away and drawing nearer, and its continual call to make a right beginning.

Today may we make a right beginning so that, come Easter, we don't return to life as normal, but begin a life resurrected.

Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sermon; Last Epiphany B; Mark 9:2-9

Today being the Last Sunday after the Epiphany we have jumped forward in Mark several chapters.  In Chapter 8 (which immediately precedes our reading) we have the feeding of the 4,000, the disciples lack of understanding, the healing of the blind man, the “Who do you say that I am” question, a crucifixion/resurrection prophesy, Jesus telling Peter to “Get behind me, Satan,” and an admonishment to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.  A lot happened in that last chapter.

And now, six days later, Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter, James and John, and is transfigured before them.  Jesus' clothes become dazzling white.  Elijah and Moses appear.  Peter, in an effort to overcome his fear, says, “Let's make three dwellings, one for each of you.”  And then they were gone.

This event, the Transfiguration, is one of the great mysteries of the faith.  It is not easily explained, and sometimes it is too easily explained.  This is a theophany, a close encounter with God.  This is a Christophany, a vision of Jesus as God.  And the mystery of that event is unexplainable.  But we can't help ourselves sometimes, and we want to explain the event and have it explained to us.  But trying in trying to do that, we lose sight of the mystery.

We talk about this as being evidence of Jesus' divinity.  We talk about fulfilling the law and the prophets.  We talk about the exuberance of Peter.  And we talk about our tendency to want to confine Jesus to a tent built on a mountain.  But we don't talk about the mystery.

Let's face it – this event is a mystery.  It's not every day a person begins to radiate white light.  And what about Elijah and Moses?  How did the disciples know who they were?  Because I'm pretty sure they didn't show up wearing a “Hello!  My name is __________” sticky tag.  Then Elijah and Moses vanish.  Shouldn't this have happened in front of the Pharisees?  This whole thing is a mystery.

It's a mystery because love is a mystery.  A cloud overshadows those six people and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

The Beloved.  I think we tend to overlook that reference.  I think we tend to see it as just another title for Jesus.  But what if we started looking at it like we might use it?  What if we ascribed to God the same feelings we have about our beloved?

We fall in love multiple times over our lives.  Sometimes with different people and sometimes with the same people.  My first love was in second grade and her name was Deena Hawley.  I was going to marry that girl; that is, until my family moved away.  I’ve fallen in and out of love with my wife several times over our 26 years together.  I fell in love with my daughter the day she was born.  Last week we celebrated over 60 years of love between Bill and Avis.  Songs and tales are written about love and people do wonderfully amazing and stupid things in the name of love.

Yes, love can make us do some amazingly stupid things.  And love can also make us smile.

We smile when we see pictures of our beloved.  We smile when our phone goes off with a special ring-tone.  We have inside jokes and secret signals that we flash to each other.  In the movie Ghost, Oda Mae fails at convincing Molly that she's channeling Sam's spirit until she says, “Ditto.”

When we are “in love,” we glow.  Brides are described as radiant.  Katrina sings about walking on sunshine.  Paul's heart went boom when he crossed that room.  And Jeff Lynne saw lovers flying through the air.

Love can change our attitude.  Love can change our outlook.  Love can change our perception.  Love can transfigure us.

And that may be the point of the Transfiguration.

John writes that God is love, and that when we love others we walk in light.  Many writers have told us that it was through an act of love that God created; and when he did, there was light.  An old Christmas carol begins, “Love came down at Christmas.”  Jesus was the Beloved.  And when he was up on that mountain, and God was present in the law and the prophets, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed them, the love of God burst forth, transfiguring Jesus into a radiant beam shining like the sun.

What makes us want to write poetry and songs?  What makes us walk on sunshine?  What makes our heart go boom?  What makes our faces beam in radiant light?

The answer is love.

Love can make us do all of those things.  Love can transfigure us.  Love transfigured Jesus.

I don't know why it works that way, it's a mystery.  But it's a mystery I’m willing to live with and into.

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  Wednesday we begin our Lenten journey that ends with Christ’s sacrificial death and victorious resurrection in the name of love.

Come and see what it's like to live into the mystery of love.

Come and see what it's like to be Transfigured by God.

Amen.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Pizza

Sometimes we do things not knowing why we did them until later.

Today was the regular monthly meeting of The Usual Suspects (mainline clergy).  We get together over lunch, talk about life in general and just have a place to be with each other.  Today, though, was more of a business meeting as we began discussing our annual ecumenical Good Friday service.

I normally order a sandwich, but I decided to get a small pizza instead (Canadian bacon and pineapple).  But I forgot that a "small" pizza serves two, and a "mini" pizza serves one.  So I got a box to take the rest home for breakfast tomorrow morning.

This afternoon a homeless man walked in wanting to know if we had any canned food.

"Nope," I said.  "But if you're hungry, I've got half a pizza you can have."

And that, apparently, is why I ordered the "small" and not the "mini."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

That Bible study

Several weeks ago I began doing a Bible study at a retirement/assisted living facility.  One of my parishioners lives there and she invited me to take over the time slot that had to be given up by another person.

I decided to begin with Matthew because I might as well start at the beginning.

The first few sessions were a little slow as they were getting to know me and I was getting used to using my outside voice inside.  They now know me and seem to enjoy having me there, and I think I've got the volume figured out.

Generally speaking, it's a good group.  But it also has "that guy" in it.  The group is dominated by women, and he's either one of two or one of one men who come.  I haven't figured out if he's intentionally difficult, if he wants to show off for the women, or if he's not all there.

When we talked about the baptism of Christ, he piped up:  "How did Matthew know about it if he wasn't there?  And why are we studying the writings of someone who wasn't there?  Shouldn't we be studying the word of God instead of the word of Matthew?"

When we got to the temptations, he said, "I can resist anything but temptation," and started to talk about why that was important, but I got to him first and redirected us back to where we needed to be.

And when I let the group know I wouldn't be in next week, he wanted to know if I had so little regard for scripture that I needed to take the day off.  When I pointed out that even Jesus occasionally took some time away from his busy schedule, and that God rested on the seventh day, he remarked, "Yes, but that was God."

I'm learning to redirect and cut short, politely of course.  I'm also making the prayer for patience part of my Monday routine.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Spam Bots

My blog is now apparently the target of spambots.

This weekend I received notifications that there were two comments awaiting moderation.

"You have a great blog.  I sincerely enjoy reading it and hope you visit my blog soon -- viagra kopen."

First clue to the spambot -- it comments on posts from nine years ago.

Second clue to the spambot -- they are overly concerned with ... um .... enhancing ... my life.

Methinks I'll return the security setting to include word verification.