20 November 2016

king


Luke 23:42, "The [the thief] said, 'Jesus, remember me . . .'"

There were two thieves hanging there beside Jesus as Luke tells the story.

And Luke is the only one that tells this part of the story. Two thieves. One hanging on one side, one on the other, two who had committed crimes that were to be punished that day. And crucifixion was the punishment of choice for the Romans because it was so public, it was so terrible, it was painful and long. The Romans believed it to be a deterrent. They thought that if anyone saw what happened to these two, to anyone who was crucified, that no one else would try the same thing again. And to make sure that everyone knew why the person hung there, a scroll, a piece of paper bearing the crime of that person would sometimes be attached to the cross along with that criminal. 

For these two thieves, theirs might have read, “For the crime of stealing, for theft.”   

These two thieves who hung on either side of Jesus. And then there was Jesus, hanging in the middle, with a sign over his head that read, “King of the Jews.” That was Jesus’s crime . . . being King of the Jews, and King of this world, and King of our lives . . . those of us who follow him. The two thieves had been caught stealing.

It is in some ways a strange thing for this reading to be on a Sunday celebrated in many churches as "Christ the King" Sunday. We read a passage about our King being crucified, dying a criminal’s death, in shame and suffering, on a Sunday that is about crowning Jesus as King, about raising Jesus high as the Christ, as our Messiah, as our Savior, as our King, affirming the words that hung on that cross with Jesus, that title of “King.”

Maybe that one criminal looked over to his side, saw the sign above Jesus’ head. Maybe that one saw that it read “King of the Jews.” 

“Well, if you are a King, then get us out of here.” I mean, can’t you see that we’re dying here?! Kings are supposed to have power and authority, right? Kings should be able to tell people what to do, how to do it, how high to jump when they say jump.  

“Are you not the Messiah?  Are you not the King?  Then save yourself and us!” this one criminal taunts. And he mocks Jesus by calling him King, by assuming that Jesus’ kingship is what we imagine kingship to be, that Jesus rules over the type of kingdom that we too imagine when we think of what a kingdom is and means.

This criminal is mocking, but also trying everything he can to get out of this predicament. Because when we are caught, when we are in distress, when any of us is suffering, we want to do everything we can to get out, to have whatever it is that is bothering us to just stop. We find that we are afraid . . . afraid of being caught, fearing our punishment, becoming defensive when we know . . . when we know that we are wrong. We are part of a culture that says that nothing is our fault . . . get into a discussion with anyone, about something you disagree about, and you’ll find that we are all quick to lay blame, to point out how someone else has done wrong.

But then there was that second criminal, that second thief. 

That second one knows that he is guilty; he knows that he is getting what is the punishment of the day; he knows that what he has done is wrong, that he has harmed others . . . and he knows the consequences.  There is no attempt to hide, no attempt to blame someone else.  Instead of mocking Jesus, this one says, “Don’t you see that this man is innocent?  Don’t you fear God?  We are both getting what we deserve; we are getting the punishment we deserve . . . but this man . . . this one has done nothing wrong.” 

When we find that place inside of ourselves where we know the brokenness that is in our own hearts, when we know what we are supposed to do and have not done, when we know what we have done that we should not have, when we feel our weakness, our dis-ease, our weariness . . . when we find that place inside of ourselves, we know that we are weak, we are sinners, we have all failed in one way or another. 

There are times in our lives when we must find that place inside of ourselves, that brokenness in our own hearts, that failure, that suffering. And we must approach that place in our hearts without fear, without blaming someone else for what we did, or saying that so-and-so stood in my way (because you allowed them to stand in your way). We must approach that place not looking at anyone else, but at ourselves.

This is the mode of confession. This is why when we confess our sins to God, we do so on our knees.  “Have mercy on me God, a miserable sinner.” Before we approach the table to take of the meal that Jesus gave us, before we take of the bread of life and the cup of salvation, we acknowledge our own sin, our own shortcomings before God.

Then we become the one who says, simply, “Remember me.” We know that we have not received what we deserved; we acknowledge that this one who is innocent, who has done no wrong when we have done many, this one suffers and dies. That second criminal says very simply, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

We close our eyes, bringing our focus to our interior life, finding that place where you know who you really are, knowing your weaknesses. For some of us they come to mind almost too easily.  Find that place without fear, without worry . . . because the one that we follow, this King that is yours and is mine, this one is beside you.   

Be without blame. Don’t blame your spouse. Don’t blame your children. Don’t blame your parents. Don’t blame your coworker, your friend, whoever it is that you think did wrong. It starts with you.

We have all fallen. We are all unworthy. Just imagine Jesus there and say to him, “Jesus, remember me . . . Jesus remember me . . . Jesus, remember me . . . Jesus, remember me.”

And Jesus says to you and to me, “Truly I tell you, today, this day, you will be with me. This day I love you. This day know that you are forgiven. This day be thankful for all that you have. The kingdom that I bring to you is one of forgiveness and peace, of knowing God’s love and joy.”

This is Christ’s victory.
This is our victory.
This is our King.

19 June 2016

fences

So, I used to think that my father could fix anything.

Now that doesn’t mean that it would be back to the kind of shape that it was in the beginning, but it would mean that whatever it was that needed fixing would work again. As some of you know, I grew up on a pig farm about eight miles north of Dublin, off of Highway 441, and on that farm we had all manner of fencing to keep those hogs in. There were wide metal gates that crisscrossed in the middle held up by thick posts planted deep in the ground. Those would swing open wide enough to drive a truck or combine through. Then you quickly closed them again. There were fences made of wood . . . wood of many different sizes and shapes, patched and pieced together. There was fence made of wire, the kind with the square holes in it, fencing that came in a roll, that you would stretch from post to post. In my memory, none of that fencing is ever nice, new, and silver-looking. It is always already brown and rusted a bit.

And then there was the electric fence. That one could be fun if you had a friend over that didn’t know about electric fences! And it worked fairly well until a plant or stick touched that single thin wire carrying the electricity, grounding it. These pigs “possessed” a keen ability to know that the fence was no longer working. This meant that as soon as the escape was discovered, my father and I and whatever hired hand he had at the time found ourselves running through the fields, trying to close in on those hogs and chase them back in the fence. And in that moment, we were “possessed” by our frustration and maybe anger at chasing pigs, one more time.

All the time it seemed, we were working on those fences, my father and I pacing the perimeter, patching here and there, hammer and nails and pieces of wood or wire in hand. And you know, sometimes, that just wore you out . . . always patching, always fixing, always working. I don’t know that I ever heard my father say it out loud, but I wonder whether he wanted to sit back and be done. It seems like when he came home, it was for one of two reasons: to grab a bite to eat and drink, just enough and then to return to the fields or because the sun had finally gone down. He did not come home because the work was over, not because the work was finished.

When we read about the prophet Elijah in this passage from 1 Kings 19 this morning, it is as if Elijah is saying, “I just want this all to be over. I want it to be done. I’ve done all that I can do.” And we can understand that sentiment at times . . . when it seems like the work that we do is never-ending, even the work here in the church, even God’s work. And Elijah talks about how hard he has worked, what all he has done. He says to God, “I have been very zealous for you God; I have worked hard for you; but the people have forsaken your covenant, thrown down their altars, and killed your prophets; God, they know better because I have told them, but still they don’t worship you, they don’t want to hear you. And now God, it is just me and they want to kill me too . . . . I’m tired . . . . I’m worn out.” We have heard these words of utter desperation, words that let you know that Elijah just doesn’t think he will ever finish this job, words that let you know just how tired he is; Elijah says, “I can’t do this anymore. I wish that I would just die.”

It is a frightening thing to hear someone say. It shocks us to hear some of the folks in our lives who “have always been strong” . . . to say such a thing. It is frightening to us that sometimes we can get to feeling so tired, so empty, after giving all that we can that we find ourselves out in the wilderness as Elijah was . . . sitting under a tree called a broom tree, wishing we could sweep out all those feelings of tiredness . . . of just give-out-ness, of fearing that we are not enough. Sometimes we believe that our fathers can do anything, can fix anything. Or maybe . . . you are one of those people that believes that you can fix anything, do anything. You don’t have to be a father to have that belief . . . any of us, parent or not, can allow our own egos to think that whatever the challenge is, we can do it. Whatever the problem, there is a solution.

But then sometimes we all get to that place, no matter how righteous the cause for which we have worked, sooner or later, our energy is gone. And sometimes we just wish that it would all be over, . . . and that’s where Elijah is at the beginning of this passage. Elijah had worked hard, but still the people turned away. And maybe there was a little bit of Elijah’s own ego wrapped up in this, that he had the answers and he was the one to save them. Elijah had done what he was supposed to do, he had won great victories, but still . . . even then . . . it wasn’t over . . . he was once again fleeing for his life . . . afraid, . . . tired, so tired . . . just sitting under that broom tree.

It is this seeming failure, Elijah’s anger, and Elijah’s fear, these have driven him away from his home, away from his community, separating him from them. Strangely, this is the opposite of our gospel passage from Luke about the Gerasene demoniac. In Luke we read of a place where fear, fear of someone who is different, fear of someone who is ill, this fear has driven the community to set up a fence of a sort, barriers and bindings, to keep out of the community the one who is different from us.

You see, fear is the enemy of community. But this is not God’s way.

Because in this gospel passage, after this one is healed, even though this one known as the Gerasene demoniac asks to stay with Jesus, with the one who healed him, he is told by Jesus to go back, to go back to his community. And Elijah, after sitting under that broom tree, after eating the sustenance provided by this angel, he is told to meet God, not the God in the great wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in this difficult to translate “sheer silence.” And if you read further, you will find that God tells Elijah continue this journey, that there are thousands of followers of God that Elijah does not know, that he can find a partner in Elisha to continue the work. God tells Elijah that he is not alone. And isn’t that we all want to know? In our anger, in our hurt, in our loss, in our fear . . . we are not alone. You are not alone.

And as much as it was for the Gerasene demoniac, for Elijah this is a move toward community. This is walking away from the fear, toward each other. And things are not necessarily “fixed” in community, or maybe they just won’t be fixed in the way that we think they should, the way that keeps old divisions in place.

You see, I used to think that my father could fix anything . . . but then he came to a place where his body would not allow him to climb up and down on that tractor, no longer able to chase around those possessed pigs. And several years before he died, he spent time wandering around the farm, removing nails and boards, rolling up old wire, gradually taking down all of the old, rickety fencing that used to keep the pigs in their pens. There are times of effort in the life of faith, often times doing what we feel is God’s work for us at that time . . . and then there is also a time to remove old fences, to make peace with our anger and our fear, to loosen our own hold. There are times to remember that despite the fear, our own weaknesses, our humanity, we are not alone. You are not alone. And these are times to know that this blessed community is where we return. And maybe God even gives us a bite of bread and something to drink to help us get up . . . and on our way.

28 November 2015

wire fence

We are entering a holy time, this season of Advent. And in opposition to the way that Christmas started the day after Halloween for the retail season, we have a tradition that is more about anticipation, quiet, and introspection. For us, this is not a season of insistent, loud commercialism.

The season of Advent, and the color of purple which is often used, is related to this period of time being a mini-Lent of a sort. As Lent is a period of fasting and reflection prior to the feast of Easter, this shorter period also represents a time to reflect, ponder, and consider prior to the feast of Christmas. Yet even with this similarity, Advent is different.

Lent gives us the emerging green plants and flowers. From the cold beginning of Lent to its end, we are reminded of the coming of resurrection in the warming of the world and the new life that springs from the soil.

Then there is Advent. During this time, we experience a gathering cold, the plodding loss of light. We pull out our sweaters, maybe noticing a hole or two as we pull them out for another year. We turn on our lights earlier and earlier as the evening comes closer and closer. We huddle together in the growing darkness to reassure ourselves that the light is coming. We huddle together to keep warm.

It is this huddling together, the way this season asks us to gather in homes, around warmth and light that reminds me of a formative poem/prayer in my life. In his book Prayers, Michel Quoist, writes about how everyday objects can remind us of the sacred. As he contemplates a "Wire Fence," he pens this prayer:

The wires are holding hands around the holes;
To avoid breaking the ring, they hold tight the neighboring wrist,
And it's thus that with holes they make a fence.

Lord, there are lots of holes in my life.
There are some in the lives of my neighbors.
But if you wish, we shall hold hands,
We shall hold very tight,
And together we shall make a fine roll of fence to adorn Paradise.

I suppose in my work in mental health I am often made aware of the “holes” that are in our individual lives and in the life of our faith community.  I know that I am aware of the “holes” in my life as well. These holes can be hurts that we have suffered or inflicted; they can be about the felt loss of someone who is not here anymore. These holes can be about something that we wish could be, but is not. My prayer for us all, as we move through this Advent, is that we do hold tight to each other, allowing those places of brokenness in our lives to become holy. And then we can make “a fine roll of fence to adorn Paradise.”

21 June 2015

kingdomtide

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” wrote George Gershwin, placing those words in the mouth of an African American woman, living in poverty, singing these words to a child. These tune presents as a sort of lullaby, but lumbers along more like a dirge. The words themselves sound as if they were meant for a white child in the arms of their “mammy.” Yet this character, Clara, sings them to her own child, at a time when the living in Charleston was anything but easy. She sings in hopes that this child will spread wings and fly.

There is a deep sadness in these words about summer “ease.” On the face of it summer brings thoughts of beach and play. But then it depends on who you are and where you are. For a person of color in Charleston in the early 1900s, summertime would have meant hard work as usual. And for all the current residents of Charleston, of our entire country in the year 2015, summertime now means grief. And especially if you are black in Charleston, there is no ease in this moment.

Many summers ago, when Dena and I served in the United Methodist church, this period of time on the Christian calendar that followed Pentecost was called “kingdomtide.” This time generally stretched from late May through the heat of the summer into late fall. This time was called “kingdomtide” to encourage in our preaching and teaching an exploration of what this “kingdom” or “reign” of God was supposed to be.

Is the “kingdom” here? Is it an expected heaven? Is it coming? Is it breaking into our present reality? Do we bring it with our work or does God bring it to us through grace? Is it a pearl of great price? Is it like a sower? Is it like a mustard seed? Is it like treasure?

We can imagine that the reign of God is a time when there is leisure and rest from labor, a time of ease, as we imagine summer to be.

Yet the reign of God is also a place of justice and equality, not based on who you are, where you come from, the color of your skin, your physical or mental disability, your sexuality, your age, your understanding, your theology, or anything that might make you different or the same. Jesus shows us a place where he simply invites us to join him, to know that this “kingdom” is among us.

And sometimes this kingdom looks like a church that despite its deep grief and hurt, opens its doors because it is Sunday morning. The good news must still be heard. A church whose name means “God is with us” shows us what God’s presence looks like.

This “kingdom” is among us, but it is also “not yet.” There is still so much work for us to join with, so much that God is already doing that it is our calling to join with, to participate in.

On June 20, as I was present for an ordination service, I was reminded of how much work we all have to do. The reign of God is not here, not yet. There is still hurt and pain, injustice and oppression. And where there are victories, we rejoice. Where there is reconciliation, we see God’s presence. And as new clergy, these who were ordained have much work ahead of them . . . as do we.

But let us focus on God’s work in this place, where we are, in this Kingdomtide. It is a work that is not easy, a work where we join with God in God’s work of reconciliation and healing, of justice and peace. It is the work that we are called to in this place. And let God’s kingdom come.

21 February 2015

wandering

for Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Where am I going? Why am I here? Is there a purpose or meaning in all this wandering?

The beginning of the Judeo-Christian story starts in this place, with Abraham. Abram, as he was previously known, was called by God to the forbearer of God’s people. Yet even this story is a story of frustration as he was delayed in having a child, as he moved from this place to that, wandering.

What can seem strange to us is how Abraham’s call is in some sense a call to wander, a call to travel away from your home. Scholars say that so much of the Hebrew Scriptures were written after the time of exile, as a way of making sense of that exile. For the children of Israel, that time of exile in Babylon was a devastating loss, people forced from their homes, marched to a much different place, becoming slaves and strangers, apart from what felt familiar and safe.

So then the wandering that had caused so much pain, so much dislocation of place and spirit, the wandering becomes a call in itself. The wandering is what we may be called to.

Martin Buber writes about Psalm 119 where it is written, “I am a sojourner on the earth, hide not your commandments from me.” He cites Rabbi Barukh that in some sense God is like a second stranger with us, someone that just by the fact that he is a stranger too, in a strange land, becomes co-traveler.

There’s a children’s book that I read often to children who feel like strangers, A Color of His Own. Leo Leoni writes about a chameleon who also feels lost because his color does not stay the same. For other animals, there is a consistent color/home.

Elephants are gray. Pigs are pink.
All animals have a color of their own--
except for chameleons.

So it was not for the chameleon. Until he finds another chameleon. And instead of longing over and over to find a consistent color, they simply change together. But . . . they are together.

My own journey of faith has been one of a lot of wandering, sometimes away from God and sometimes closer. I can sometimes look back and see what then appears to be pattern. But I am hesitant to call it a plan. I grew up on one piece of land for my entire youth, but even then, felt out of place. With parents who were much older than my peers, reading books and music that most of my peers were confused by, I did not necessarily feel at home, even though that land had been in our family for generations.

So I wandered, not with a covenant, but because it is what felt like the right thing to do. But maybe there is a promise there somewhere in the wandering.

18 February 2015

ashes

Matthew 6:1-21, "Beware of practicing your piety before others . . ."
Joel 2:1-18, "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . ."

So today we begin this season of Lent. We hear scriptures tell us, “Return again to the Lord, tear not your clothing (a sign of mourning), but tear your hearts! For God is a God of steadfast love for the people. Now is the time, now is the day of salvation. Be reconciled to God.”

And then we receive instructions about how we are to fast and pray, how we should give what we have to others from the gospel of Matthew. These are all reminders that our duty in this season, our duty in every season is to seek the things of God, not the things of this world, not the things that corrupt or fade. We turn again toward God, to make ourselves empty so that we might be filled, to remind ourselves of death, so that we might have life, to face these ashes, so that like the phoenix rising from the ashes, we may prepare ourselves for the light of resurrection, no the fire of resurrection to burn again in our hearts.

This season of Lent was originally not for the whole church, but only for those who were entering the Christian faith. It was a time of preparation, where these soon to be officially brought into the congregation through the waters of baptism, this group fasted and prayed, served the poor, helped those who were helpless.

Their job was to empty themselves, so that they could be filled.

It was as if they were taking a journey, but one unlike any they had ever taken before. Most of the time you pack a bag, thinking of what you will need along the way, making sure that you have food and water, making sure that you have enough clothing. But this journey was one where those on it are asked to get rid of things, to give to the poor, to give of themselves in service, to fast, to give up their food, and to pray, to give up that time to God. These are all activities that make room, that make space for God. Because unless there is space for God, unless we make room, God may be absent from out lives.

It is like this bird’s nest, constructed twig by twig, bit by bit until there was this tiny little hollow place in the center, filled with the softest things that that bird could find. This is where the eggs would be laid, this is where this new life would hatch, would chirp.

But that bird had to prepare first, prepare that empty space.

You see, sometimes we have to prepare that space too. And for us, for us who live in a culture with schedules and busyness, with all the TV and radio and Facebook and Instagram, that we could ever want in our lives, with more things that we will ever really need, for us part of the preparation is to empty everything out.

And sometimes it is our worries. And we remember these ashes, and we know that some of the things that we think are so very important today, are not really. The ashes remind us that nothing is permanent.

And sometimes it is our possessions; and these are things that will break, that will fade, that will slide away from us.

And sometimes it is our pride, because we don’t want to be small, we are afraid that God will ask us to do something that will make everyone think differently of us.

And of course sometimes it is the busyness of our lives that makes no room for God; and we must be empty.

We must sit in silence so that we may hear God’s voice. We must go without food at times so that we may feast of what is really important, so that we may be hungry for the bread of life. We must serve those who are in need, because in them, in our emptying ourselves for them, we will find a fullness that we could not imagine.

We receive these ashes on our foreheads as we prepare. And many years ago during that preparation time for the new Christians, those who were already part of that congregation began observing these rites along with those who were being initiated into the faith. Because we are a people who must continually empty ourselves again.

The world tries to hard to fill us with the wrong things. So each year, we come here, we receive these ashes that remind us of our initial entry into the faith, with the sign of the cross, a sign of baptism.

And we empty ourselves again . . . so that we may be filled.

For we know, as we go throughout these forty days, a number that signals completion, this is our complete emptiness, we will be filled. We know that a new fire will rise out of the ashes of this day, that the light of Christ will rise yet again on Easter morning.

04 May 2014

yellow goo

Luke 24:13-35

Maybe George Lucas had it right . . . maybe. He began telling the story of Star Wars, starting in the middle, calling it Episode 4. Then, several years later, the Star Wars story travels back, all the way to the beginning in order to tell the first part, or Episodes 1 through 3. That way we could better understand the middle part of the story. And now, as many of you may have heard in the news this week, there were announcements that the cast has been selected for the final three episodes. And it was just in time, for this very day. For although we in the church know this day as the third Sunday of Easter according to the liturgical calendar, many of you may also know today as May 4th.

And to that I say, “May the fourth be with you . . . .” And because we are in an Episcopal church you respond by saying, . . . “And also with you!”

Personally, I prefer Emily Dickinson to George Lucas. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant . . . .” she writes. Because this story in our gospel reading this morning, this walk to Emmaus, seems to be a bit of a windy road. This story begins in the middle. And in that middle is the confusion and fear and hope and bewilderment of that present moment. Then a stranger joins these two, walking along with them, and as they ponder the present, this stranger reminds them of the past. And then just as the stranger seems to be moving on, they ask him to stay with them, to eat. And that is where past, present, and future come together . . . in a meal. This stranger reveals a future to them that is seen in the opening . . . or breaking of bread.

Dickinson writes that “the truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind.”

There is something about stories that unfold over time, something special about meals that take a while, with stories told over the breaking of bread. Change does take time, and sometimes change takes breaking . . . maybe even death and resurrection. And it is not until after that change or that passage or that walk, oftentimes with a stranger, that you can see what you did not see before, that your eyes may be opened and you may be opened. Admittedly, that’s hard to see on this side of that change.

Several months ago, I found myself listening to a story about a transformation of a very particular, but somewhat mysterious kind: the story of how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. No, it was not the children’s picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but instead was a science program called Radiolab. And they offered a vivid description of that process of what happens in the chrysalis. The first part I thought I understood fairly well. Caterpillars eat and eat . . . and eat (reading the Very Hungry Caterpillar over and over helped me out on this). But then, at some point, when that time is finished, they find a nice branch or safe perch and begin making this structure around themselves, this chrysalis or cocoon. That wasn’t the mystery.

But where the mystery was for me, and maybe for you as well, is what happens inside that structure that the caterpillar builds around itself. It seems that the explanation for how this happens is much less clear than you might think. Because the caterpillar, on entering the chrysalis dissolves itself inside that structure. The parts that were brain and stomach, heart and muscle, are no more. If you were to slice open a chrysalis or cocoon after the caterpillar has entered, you would find what the reporter described as “yellow goo”.

Everything that was once recognizable as a caterpillar is now gone . . . and what is left is this “goo” inside the chrysalis. You do not see two tiny wings or six tiny legs, as I suspected. And you would not find anything that looked like the caterpillar that once was. The transformation is quite complete and quite messy.

And maybe we should already know that change, that transformation is messy and difficult. And what we are along the way is not who we have been and not exactly what we will be. And what we see now is not what we saw then. We do not understand that there was a time where we crawled and could not imagine flying.

Those disciples on that road did not recognize the Risen Christ who walked alongside them. In that messy time of transition and change, of fear and bewilderment, they could not understand who was beside them. So Jesus told the story again, going back to the beginning. Even telling them that this was “necessary” that the Savior should suffer before “entering glory.” And so it is that suffering enters our story again too.

We are in many different places in our lives, in our journeys with the Risen Christ, even in our collective journeys as communities of faith. And we may not always understand the difficulties of the present, of where our own “slanted” story is at this moment. And so sometimes God asks us to look back, to remember where God provided and saved in the past. But we must also look ahead, knowing that the way through involves transformation at times. The path that Christ leads us on is often a path of being open to our brokenness, looking for where God is transforming us and where God is transforming you.

And knowing that it is in the brokenness where Christ meets us, where the Risen Christ is revealed . . . in the blessing and breaking of the bread.