Category Archives: Sermons

Keep your clothes on | Sermon for Proper 7C

 

The men were roughly clothed, generally in coarse blue cloth, very carelessly put together. The women came in with their invariably noiseless, gliding step, in very wild garb; they were shrouded in blankets, their heads closely covered with various wrappings ….

Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the famous novelist, shared these impressions in a series of articles called “Missions to the Oneidas” in The Living Church in 1885 and 1886.

I spent this past week at the Episcopal Tri-History Conference in Oneida, Wisconsin.

Parishioners at Church of the Holy Apostles and members of the Oneida Nation were our very gracious hosts as participants from the three historical societies of the Episcopal Church met to consider the encounters between Episcopal and Anglican churches and the indigenous people of North America.

Despite the appreciative portrayal of writers like Susan Fenimore Cooper, the tragic history of those encounters is more about European and American colonists’ attempts to “civilize” indigenous people or, frankly, to take their land, send them to distant reservations, and transport their children to residential boarding schools in order to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The archivists and historians in the US and Canada have become painfully aware how church and state conspired over the last three centuries to make indigenous people and their cultures disappear.

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I wonder if the prophet Elijah standing by the entrance to his cave on Mt. Horeb appeared like the Oneida women, wrapped in his mantle and shrouded in the “sound of sheer silence.”

He, too, was being threatened with disappearing – Jezebel and Ahab had marked him for death after he prevailed over the false prophets loyal to the king and caused rain to fall after three years’ drought. He had run forty days and nights into the desert, far from his home.

But God gave Elijah a command: Stand on the mountain. Wrap your mantle around you and do not be swept away by the wind, the breaking rocks, the quaking ground, the fire, the noise.

Elijah must not fear those who seek his life, but he is to go back across the desert and fulfill God’s mission.

Keep your clothes on, and keep speaking truth to power.

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What a powerful jolt Jesus got as he stepped off the boat after crossing the Sea of Galilee!

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!”

The poor Gerasene man’s many demons shouted in his head and caused him to shout at Jesus.

Jesus gives the demons a command – leave this man alone – and they rush out into a herd of pigs, leaving the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.”

Though the townspeople are even more freaked out than they had been by the naked man living in the tombs – and he and they both probably wish he’d leave with Jesus – the man is sent home instead to share the good news of what God has done in his life.

Keep your clothes on, and keep sharing good news with your family and your neighbors.

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Paul had neighbors all around the Mediterranean, and Galatia must have been a fairly cosmopolitan Roman province, where “Jews and Greeks, slaves and free,” men and women lived and worked.

He really struggled to keep the members of his congregation there from going back to the old Law, though, to rules and regulations about who was in or who was out, what food was right to eat, what days were appropriate to observe as festivals.

Paul also struggled, according to Edward Blair, against “the Jewish nationalism of the time, which was emphasizing separation from Gentiles and strict loyalty to everything Jewish, not only in Palestine, but in the Roman world as well” (Blair 297).

His people’s focus on legalism and political separation, their disunity, is disheartening to him. “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted,” he says.

“As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Keep your clothes on and act like you are one in Christ Jesus!

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Bishop Mark MacDonald is now the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.

In his keynote address at this week’s conference, Bishop Mark spoke about the resilience of Native American communities like the Oneida Nation and like many of the First Nations among whom he ministers in Canada.

The Oneida, for example, though they sided with the colonists in the Revolutionary War, lost their land in New York state to their neighbors and had to relocate to Wisconsin. Here in Wisconsin, the same New York fur traders and logging companies who had driven them from their land tried to do it to them all over again.

Nevertheless, over the past 200 years, the Oneida Nation has rebounded in many ways. On the civic side the Oneida Nation is a leader among Native American communities, and on the religious side Owanah Anderson, the former native missioner of the Episcopal Church, praised Holy Apostles as “the Canterbury Cathedral of Native American ministry.”

But Bishop Mark went on to talk about a harder truth. Despite centuries of policies enacted by church and state meant to dispossess them of their land, wipe out their language, and eliminate their religion and culture, the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity has been widespread. Some 80% of First Nations people in Canada are baptized, Bishop Mark said, a much higher percentage than their “more rapidly secularizing” neighbors.

He suggests that about 5% of indigenous people practice their traditional religion, and about 5% practice “normal” European Christianity. The broad middle – most of whom are baptized, remember – make their way in the world as best they can, and are to be commended for their resilience in the face of efforts (even by fellow Christians) to make them disappear.

The resilience of communities like the Oneida, Bishop Mark says, “reeks of resurrection. It smells like the Gospel!”

The resilience of others in the face of hardship and death may smell like the Gospel, but that Gospel often comes shrouded in clothes that look strange to us.

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Some keep their clothes on and act like they are one in Christ Jesus, but they’re wearing beaded necklaces, praying to the Great Creator, and singing in their native language.

Some keep their clothes on and share good news with their neighbors, but we find their their political views troubling.

Some keep their clothes on and speak truth to power, but their club music is loud and unfamiliar (and we don’t know the dance steps).

Some keep their clothes on and share good news with their neighbors, but their stories of mental illness and stigma, recovery and healing make us uncomfortable.

Some keep their clothes on and act like they are one in Christ Jesus, but they make us aware of our own biases and cause us anxiety when they behave differently than we do.

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It’s in the differences between us, and the resilience with which we all deal with the situations we live in, that the Gospel will be found if we have eyes to see – to see past what Mother Teresa calls “Christ in all his distressing disguises.”

It’s in the power of the resurrection over everything that threatens to make anyone disappear that we recognize we have all “come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace” (BCP 101).

We all came up out of the same waters of baptism, we were all reeking of the oil of anointing, and we all put on a new baptismal robe.

Let’s embrace our enemies, our neighbors, even our fellow-Christians – as strange as they may seem – like Christ Jesus would and does embrace them! Let’s make sure that we are looking for resurrection rather than looking to make anyone disappear.

That’s what it means to keep our clothes on and clothe ourselves with Christ. Amen.

 

 

 

Featured image: Oneida woman ca. 1900 from Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project.

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Undefended, powerless, but kept in God’s love

Today’s collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is pretty serious.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It lays out the fear that paralyzes our bodies and neutralizes our souls and in it we pray that we may be not just defended, but kept in God’s love.

We get one thing right in this prayer. We ask for two things that we’re never going to get. And we get from God something “more than we can ask or imagine.”

So, the first thing we get wrong …

 

That we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body

Then the LORD said [to Moses], “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

Moses’ first efforts, unfortunately, made Pharaoh angry and he punished the Israelites by cutting off their supply of straw but requiring they make the same number of bricks each day. So their work was doubled and their bodies further harmed.

Ultimately, however, the LORD redeemed their bodies from slavery and the whip but immediately subjected their bodies to the harsh conditions of the wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16:2-3)

Reminds me of the “ex-leper” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who complains that Jesus has healed him: “One minute I’m a leper with a trade; the next minute, my livelihood’s gone! Bloody do-gooder!”

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Brian replies.

“That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”

Ex-leper

We’re wrong to believe that we will be defended from bodily harm, just as we’re wrong to think that we’ll be freed from “evil thoughts.”

 

That we may be defended from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul

Jesus is being cross-examined by the Pharisees and lawyers in front of a growing crowd when someone asks him: “Oh yeah, what about those Galileans who were killed in church?”

He retorts, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

The Galileans killed in the Temple by Pilate’s soldiers, their blood mingling with their sacrifices … or how about the eighteen people killed in the Siloam tower collapse?

Jesus asks, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

Or how about the nine people who died during the tornadoes this week?

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about the 41 people injured and 25 people killed by gun violence this week in Iuka MS, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Houston, Hazelwood MO, Daytona Beach, Glendale AZ, Hesston KS, and Belfair WA? (I had to Google to be sure I didn’t miss any.)

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about people on food stamps or unemployment?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

Or how about Bernie supporters? Trump supporters?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

These are perfect examples of what recovery programs call “stinking thinking,” the thought that this time (for me) it’ll be different. This time (for me) the rules don’t apply. This time (for me) the consequences won’t be so severe.

What a crock! And we know it, but we’re afraid to admit it. We’re no better than anyone else, and in our blindness we may in fact be worse.

But we do get one essential thing right in our prayer.

God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves

Moses gets it right.

“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God …. and Moses asked “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:6, 11)

christ-in-gethsemane-p

Paul continues in the same vein, using the Israelites in the wilderness as an example to the Christians in Corinth:

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. (1 Cor. 10)

Who are we to say we’re any better than our ancestors in the faith, any less likely to stray into temptation, any less likely to complain, any less likely to put Christ to the test?

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Jesus says.

“These things happened to them to serve as an example,” Paul writes, “and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

 

Almighty God, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls

We are not defended from bodily adversity; we are not defended from “stinking thinking,” and we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Even knowing God’s name doesn’t work like a magic spell or give us special powers.

Richard Rohr suggests that even God’s name, I AM WHO I AM – or YAHWEH – is not a real name at all, but the sound of one’s breathing. (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

No wonder Moses doesn’t seem convinced. Instead of a name to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh, all he gets is the sound of his own breathing.

[IN] YAH

[OUT] WEH

Our chests tighten in fear [IN], and we exhale in relief [OUT].

We suffer and die [IN] just like anyone does, but we are given a name and a promise [OUT] to sustain us.

We struggle against oppression and violence [IN], even as we recognize it in ourselves [OUT].

I think I’m standing [IN], but I’ve got to watch out that I don’t fall [OUT].

We are not magically defended from bodily harm; we are not righteously defended from “stinking thinking,” and if we’re honest we’ll admit we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves – at least not any better than anyone else does.

But “in falling and in rising, we are kept ever precious in one love,” as Julian of Norwich reminds us.

Falling rising Julian

And that’s what we get right in this morning’s Collect. We are kept ever precious in God’s one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our bodies are kept in one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our souls are kept in one love.

We are powerless to save ourselves,
but we ourselves are kept in one love.

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[IN] Keep us, [OUT] Almighty God.

[IN] Keep me, [OUT] O God.

[IN] O God. [OUT]

This child is our spark | Sermon for 2 Christmas

The candles and the fire sparkle in the dim light of the simple home.

The visitors from far away have come and gone. The presents are opened and already forgotten; the child is playing with the boxes they came in.

The child is young and probably won’t remember the presents, anyway, especially after his family takes flight in their desperate need and leaves that simple home behind.

The British poet and priest Malcolm Guite writes:

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

As we stood at the beginning of this service, we prayed:

O God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ … (BCP 214)

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, the Christ Child inspires us to reflect on the dignity of human nature.

First, we must listen to our prayer and its wisdom that God “wonderfully created … the dignity of human nature.” That is our starting point. God created all that is, including us, and it is good.

But we also know that sin quickly entered the picture, and that human history has often been undignified, to say the very least.

Our dignity can be obscured by our circumstances:

By poverty

By racial prejudice

By sickness

By war – making refugees out of people fleeing from the threat of death

And our dignity can be disfigured by our selves:

By greed

By fear

By anger

By cruelty – like the murderous arrogance of Herod and any who lash out at others

But our dignity can also be restored by our creator’s life-giving Spirit:

By our wonder at the stars and at human learning

By our faithfulness to God’s leading

By our foresight to protect those whom we love

By our willingness to travel far from home and face risks

Another British poet, George Szirtes, was himself a refugee from Hungary at the age of eight.

His haunting poem called “The Flight” was set to music as a commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge this year.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

Its dissonant chords like wailing sirens made it hard to breathe as I listened last week:

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

This child is our spark.

This child whose very life restores the dignity of human nature.

This child who humbles himself to share our humanity, his own dignity obscured by poverty and war, by arrest and execution, but never disfigured by himself.

This child who through his death and resurrection, and the sharing of his Spirit, invites us to share in his divine life … this child is our spark.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road …

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to work against all that obscures and disfigures the dignity of human nature – by combating poverty, standing against war, facing up to racial prejudice, exposing greed, and abstaining from cruelty.

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to participate with the creator’s life-giving Spirit in restoring the dignity of human nature – by our willingness and wonder, by our faith and foresight, by our humility in the face of the oppressed, and by our presence wherever humans still suffer.

That presence sparkles in dim light and desperate need.

That presence is not lightly forgotten or tossed aside.

That presence is in fact the Christ Child making his home with his people.

Here is our fire. This child is our spark. Amen.

Choose the Kingdom life, you brood of vipers!

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

Look, it’s Gaudete Sunday and we’re lighting a pink candle in the Advent wreath. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Christmas is just around the corner … but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

What a downer! C’mon, John  ….

At least John is just a forerunner, announcing the coming of Jesus.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild — infant holy, infant lowly — whom we celebrate at Christmas.

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Yeah, we’ve been hearing from that Jesus all week in the Daily Office readings from Matthew 23.

And you know what? He sounds an awful lot like his cousin John.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ … You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt. 23)

So, yeah, let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

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I mean, what’s going on here?

What happened to our gentle Lord Jesus?

Well, you see, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting together to trap him (Matt. 22:16).

(You remember the Herodians — they follow Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the guy who had all the babies of Bethlehem killed when Jesus was born. Yeah, that guy.)

The religious and the political powers are converging around Jesus, trying to silence his message, which up until then had been about the kingdom of God, about healing and restoration.

They’ve been badgering him ever since he arrived in Jerusalem on that Sunday, riding on a donkey through the gate of Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna from the the palm-waving crowd.

They were probably still upset about the whole tables of the money-changers thing, still smarting from his response about paying taxes, still angry about his undermining their authority and evading their questions.

The chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the lawyer … push push push!

But Jesus has probably just about had it, too.

He turns to the crowd and delivers his outburst against the Pharisees and scribes — the hypocrites. He goes all John the Baptist on them.

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But that’s not the end of it.

Jesus does not win over the crowds — or the religious leaders — by railing at them.

In fact, he doesn’t win over the crowds at all.

As he leaves the Temple, he tells his disciples a number of parables, then says: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matt. 26:1-5)

It’s hard to tell whether it’s Advent or Lent … whether it’s Christmas or Good Friday.

Christmas is just around the corner, but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.

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I’m grateful to my Bishop, Matthew Gunter, who offered this brief meditation at a discernment retreat yesterday:

In response to what’s going on in the world around us, all the fear and violence, we can pick up a hammer and nails, or we can pick up a basin and towel.

The hammer and nails speak in the world’s language, the language of power and victory. The hammer pounds with the force of John the Baptist’s conviction, and the nails ring out with Jesus’ piercing clarity as he argues in the Temple.

But the hammer blows ring out against Jesus two days later, and the troublemaker hangs silent, nailed to a tree.

It seems the authorities have won.

But the basin and towel turn everything upside down.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks after the Last Supper is concluded, as he dries his hands on the towel around his waist.

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13).

The basin and towel set an example for us of Kingdom living, of a new way of acting in the face of the world’s power and violence.

The basin and towel wash our feet and set them on the way of the cross, which is paradoxically the way of life and peace.

The basin washes us just like Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan washed him.

Jesus, at the very end of his life, shows us how we should live, what we should do.

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“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist back at the beginning.

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

The Rev. Steve Pankey, on his blog Draughting Theology, writes:

John’s answer is simple. In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane. He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own. Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.

Wait… what? Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied? That’s what Kingdom living looks like? That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it. Which is precisely John’s point.

Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.

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Even now the ax is laid at the root of the tree.

So bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Choose the Kingdom life — the basin and towel — instead of the life of power and control that nailed gentle Jesus to the cross on Good Friday.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you lovely brood of vipers.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Give it away entirely and come into the oasis

Many of you know that two years ago this week I acknowledged my addiction to alcohol and began living in recovery.

I carry a pocket medallion as a reminder of the grace I have received in recovery – grace far beyond my imagining. Most days, I have a sense of living in what a friend calls “the oasis” and AA refers to as “a daily reprieve … contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

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My prayer life, my practice of the Daily Office, the teaching I do and the conversations I have with colleagues and friends – all of it has been reinvigorated by what the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr calls in Breathing Under Water the “coded Gospel” of the 12 Steps.

You may not realize, though, that stopping drinking was only a small part of the work that I have had to do in recovery. In addition to the medallion in my pocket, I also wear a bracelet around my wrist, one of the last things I bought without my wife’s knowledge before losing my job.

2015-07-24 18.21.20

My addiction to spending and to indulging myself has been much, much harder to deal with – it’s the same struggle alcoholics face when they can’t stop thinking about their next drink.

You lack one thing

I think I know a little bit about how the “rich young man” felt after he found Jesus.

A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments …. “ He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

You lack one thing …. you have many possessions.

Here’s where I think the rich young man realizes what the living God asks of each one of us. The living God asks for all of us.

The young man is looking for inspiration, but Jesus, who loves him, points to the one thing that really keeps him from God – the wealth he cannot imagine doing without.

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.”

What a state he must have found himself in:

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face! (Job 23:8-9,16-17)

The Almighty has terrified me

In our Old Testament lesson, Job has lost everything, and he does not yet have the answer that will help him remain faithful to God. The Almighty has terrifed him, and Job doesn’t yet understand that God loves him.

In the meantime, his friends and his wife, as Fr. Ralph reminded us last week, are giving him conflicting (and bad) advice. They can’t help him discover either God’s love or the one thing he lacks.

Unlike Job’s companions, however, my wife and my friends have given me good advice and steady support.

Their willingness to share love and to confront me about the things I lack has helped me do the hard work of staying steady in recovery.

  • A dear friend made sure I was “fearless and thorough from the very start” in admitting my failings.
  • A fellow deacon in another diocese helped me admit I needed to go to AA meetings and – laughing at how upside-down I had it – helped me understand that sobriety was an oasis, not a burden.
  • The first boss I had after losing my job, who has been sober for several years, gave me his 3-month sobriety medallion when I reached that milestone myself.
  • The guys in the Thursday morning breakfast and Bible study group here at St. Thomas drew me into their circle of support.
  • And my wife has cheerfully accommodated my being home and underfoot after nearly 10 years on the road, encouraging my new habits and being patient with my stumbling.

church-circle-graphicMy recovery – my new faith in this “coded Gospel” – really is something I have to work at every day. But what I have to work at most is not to do with drinking, but with spending money.

It’s a Pendleton, you idiot!

Sitting on the sofa watching TV one night a few months ago, I was in jeans and my favorite flannel shirt, and I thought “I really like this shirt; I should buy another one.”

A couple beats later, after that thought went away, a new one came in. “You’re an idiot; that’s a Pendleton shirt. It’ll last for 100 years. You’ll be dead before it wears out. You don’t need another one.”

“Oh, cool.”

Contentment is weird.

People in recovery are more used to being “restless, irritable, and discontented” (Big Book xxviii).

But when you’re content, it’s like you can just be, and everything is all right. Perhaps eternal life is like that – just being with God, living in an oasis.

What must I do?

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the rich young man, who probably had several shirts.

Jesus loves him, and says, “You lack one thing … get rid of the thing that’s keeping you from God, whatever it is. Give it away entirely, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.”

For me, giving away my desire for a drink and giving away my desire to buy more things have together led me back to Jesus and to “a faith that really works in daily living” (12and12, 43).

What is the one thing you lack?

What might Jesus, who loves you, point to in your life? What’s the one thing that keeps you from God?

Is it money?

Food? Anger? Gossip?

Is it drinking or drugs or politics or something equally addictive?

Is it approval or being right or getting your way?

What are you holding onto so tightly that you can’t receive the treasure of heaven?

Give it away entirely, and enter the oasis!

Speaking of oases

The story of the rich young man reminds me of another favorite story, this one not from an oasis but from the Desert Fathers of 3rd century Egypt:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

 Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “Why not become totally flame?”

abbas lot and joseph - all flameWhat’s the one thing you lack? What’s holding you back from God?

Why not give it away in order to find a faith that works, in order to find contentment?

Why not become totally flame?

Why not give it away entirely, and live now in the oasis with God?

Transformed by the renewing of our minds | Sermon for June 28, 2015

I subscribe to the daily emails sent by the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr, who said once at a lecture at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena that:

Religion distinguishes between education and transformation. They’re not the same thing! You can be educated and not transformed, and you can be uneducated and profoundly transformed.

But the apostle Paul blends the two in his letter to the Romans, where he writes:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

Education and transformation go together in the program called Education for Ministry, or EfM, which Joanne and Barb invited me to talk about today here at St. Luke’s.

EFM as education

Students in EfM really are students. They read textbooks chosen by staff at the Beecken Center of the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee (one of the 11 historic Episcopal seminaries).

EfM was created 40 years ago as a “four-year distance learning certificate program of theological education,” and students will testify that they learn a lot.

EfM students in Year One listening to today’s Gospel might be thinking about the Old Testament’s (excuse me, the Hebrew Bible’s) ritual purity laws.

John Petty of ProgressiveInvolvement.com writes that:

Mark does not explicitly mention violations of the ‘purity code,’ but there are two of them in this reading. First, the woman with the hemorrhage touched Jesus, rendering him unclean. Second, Jesus touched the dead young woman, which also would have rendered him unclean.

EfM students in Year Two might be thinking about the New Testament and how to interpret documents written in Greek nearly 2,000 years ago.

Mark Davis, on his blog Left Behind and Loving It, translates the Greek of each week’s Gospel reading directly and comments on the problems or insights he discovers.

Mark the Gospel writer’s prose is urgent and breathless anyway, but this passage takes the cake:

And a woman being in a flow of blood for 12 years and having suffered much by many physicians and having spent all that she had and not having benefitted but having gone from bad to the worse having heard about Jesus having gone into the crowd she grabbed his garment from behind.

Davis goes on to say, “She is as defined by her determination as by her suffering. That is the value of respecting Mark’s string of participles and being patient for the main verb. After all that she suffered and did, she grabbed his garment.”

EfM students in Year Three might be thinking about how the political maneuverings and bloody wars of 3,000 years of church history are seemingly unrelated to today’s Gospel.

As one student in my group observes nearly every week, “The church history author hardly mentions Jesus at all!”

The church history we read is really the history of 3,000 years of religious change.

The last couple of weeks have seen momentous changes, with the events in Charleston and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the ACA and marriage equality, with President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Episcopal Church’s election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, another African-American preacher, as our 27th Presiding Bishop.

And yet we realize that the past is prologue, that history repeats itself, that even today girls in Zimbabwe, Kenya, or Haiti who have reached the age of menstruation often have to miss school because their period is seen as shameful. Girls in Bangladesh and India suffer infections for lack of clean supplies.

As for their hopes of an education or independence, they might as well be dead — like the synagogue leader’s unnamed daughter.

And EfM students in Year Four will have been reading stories and academic analyses about how people in different cultures read the Gospel differently, about how men and women read the Gospel differently, about how the powerful and powerless read the Gospel differently.

Deborah Blanks, associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, writes for the African-American Lectionary.org:

[Jesus’] message is clear – that the unnamed woman is of no less importance than the ill daughter of a person of power. She becomes a perpetual reminder that the socially marginal have a conspicuous place in the realization of God’s reign.

EfM might help us learn a lot that enriches our appreciation of the Gospel, but it doesn’t stop there.

EFM as reflection

We don’t simply gaze in admiration at all of the pictures our teachers have painted.

Instead, we deliberately – in a process called theological reflection – look more closely at the pictures, entering into the emotions and dilemmas and questions they depict.

In our “TRs” (as we call them) we seek a glimpse of how God is acting in our lives and share with each other our transformed understanding.

If we were doing a theological reflection on efficiency, for example, we might picture Jesus as a paramedic and look closely at his presence in this chaotic and emotional scene.

Peter Woods, on his blog The Listening Hermit, writes an entry called “Jesus has no time for triage”.

With all the drama of a novel rushing to its climax, Mark inserts the older hopeless woman into the story of Jesus’ mission to heal the just girl. The old bleeding woman is an interruption and an energy thief to boot! Yet, as the story unfolds both are healed. The young and the old, the hopeful and the hopeless. There is enough time, power, compassion, and grace to go round so that no one needs be written off.

Or, if we were doing a theological reflection on vulnerability, we might remember that the woman is ritually impure, shunned because of her bleeding; the child is unclean (and her father prostrate with grief) because she is dead. We might see ourselves in the portrait before us.

David Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia writes on the blog Dear Working Preacher:

We tend in our culture to avoid vulnerability – to avoid admitting that we don’t have it all together – because of the way it can leave you feeling exposed, desperate and, well, vulnerable. And there is something of that in these stories. But we’ve also seen that only in admitting our vulnerability are we able to receive help, and only by owning our moments of desperation are we willing to try something out of the ordinary, discover the courage to be and act differently.

Being transformed for ministry

Jesus’ presence in the whirlwind encounters with the woman and the child transformed them. The child was brought back to life, and the woman was brought back into life.

Jesus transformed and encouraged them both.

He encouraged Mark and the other disciples to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and the world keeps turning upside down.

Having “the courage to be and to act differently” – that’s what it means to be transformed by Jesus.

Admitting our vulnerability – admitting that we don’t have it all together – and receiving help, that’s the renewing of our minds in Jesus that helps us to “discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Transformation is for all of us. Reflection is for all of us. Education is for all of us.

Shameless plug: Education for Ministry is for all of us.

Being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect – that’s for all of us.

Amen.

[Sermon preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.]

Sermon at Morning Prayer | Sunday, June 21, 2015

“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of Ethel Lance said. “And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

“As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you,” survivor Felicia Sanders said. “But may God have mercy on you.”

How in the world can these people from Emanuel AME Church in Charleston be at peace?

How in the world can they have forgiveness in their hearts?

How did they come to possess “the peace that passes understanding”?

The Cycle of Gospel Living

It’s clear that most of us do not have that peace.

We try to talk about racism and violence and the other ills that plague us, but we end up talking past each other and inflaming each other further. The news media and social media erupt with argument and counter-argument.

Even when we are fellow-Christians trying to speak about the Gospel, we do not always help as we had hoped to. We try to “proffer the Word of life,” but we still talk past each other.

The Rev. Eric H. F. Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute teaches about the “Cycle of Gospel Living,” and I believe it can help us in these challenging conversations.

We have studied this cycle in our Education for Ministry groups this year, as we reflect on “Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World.”

Take a moment to look at the diagram carefully.

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We all participate in the dying and rising of Christ, in the cross and resurrection, but we enter the cycle from different places – the powerless from the bottom, the powerful from the top.

This cycle is reflected in all three of the readings assigned for the Daily Office today:

From the bottom, from complete defeat and disaster for Israel, “The wife of Phinehas said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’” (1 Samuel 4:22)

After speaking to someone on top, a rich young man, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23).

And writing to Christian Jews living in “the Dispersion,” in a variety of different places, James says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low” (James 1:9-10).

The Coded Gospel

How in the world can these people be at peace?

How can we come to possess the peace that passes understanding?

“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps…. Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

Through my own experiences in recovery I have heard in the 12 Steps of AA what Richard Rohr calls “the coded Gospel” (Breathing Under Water).

An experience of powerlessness can trigger our awareness that we cannot handle our life alone.

When we admit our powerlessness, we can find reprieve – “a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

We may even find that our regular spiritual practices become an oasis, rather than a burden.

Sitting in the Oasis

The members of Emanuel AME Church were meeting for their regular Wednesday night Bible study.

They were sitting “in the oasis,” and they welcomed a stranger to join them, even offering him a seat of honor next to their pastor.

As African-American people in South Carolina, they lived in relative powerlessness – even though their pastor was also a state senator, the streets around their church are named for Confederate generals, a constant reminder of slavery and of past and present violence against people of color.

As people of color, their identification with Jesus, their entry into the cycle of gospel living, may have been at the bottom, but their endurance like Jesus, their empowerment by Jesus, and the daily maintenance of their spiritual condition in union with the resurrected Jesus produced in them an oasis, full of living water.

Choosing the Cross

We do not necessarily have the same experience of the Gospel.

Our identification with Jesus, our entry into the cycle of Gospel living, is more likely to start at the top and to require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we enjoy as white people in northeast Wisconsin.

Whether something like addiction calls us up short, whether the death of a loved one brings us low, whether we are cut to the quick by the words of Scripture, our falling and failing will also lead us into “the way of the cross, [which is] none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

You Cannot Transmit Something You Haven’t Got

So how did they come to possess the peace that passes understanding?

And how can we come to share in the peace that does not “treat the wound of [God’s] people carelessly” (Jer. 6:14)?

The “Big Book” of AA reassures me that “the answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got” (164).

Many people in the Episcopal Church, especially as we prepare for General Convention, are calling us to a preach resurrection and engage in the kind of practices that will get us what we need to transmit.

A Memorial to the Church by the Acts 8 Moment invites the Episcopal Church to:

  • recommit itself to the spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life,
  • go into our neighborhoods boldly …, and
  • restructure our church for the mission God is laying before us today.

And 3 Practices TEC invites us to:

  • follow Jesus together
  • into the neighborhood, and
  • travel lightly

The Spiritual Disciplines at the Core

Like the 12 Steps of recovery, the “spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life” are deceptively simple:

  • Celebrate the Holy Eucharist on Sundays and Major Feasts
  • Pray every morning and evening, soaking yourself in the Scriptures
  • Confess your sins to God, and to another person if you need to
  • Feast during Christmas and Easter and on Major Feasts; fast during Lent and on Fridays
  • Baptize, confirm, and teach new disciples
  • Care for each other “in sickness and in health”

And, just like the folks in AA have a “Big Blue Book” we have a “Red Book” (the Book of Common Prayer).

2012-08-06 13.03.01

The “daily maintenance of our spiritual condition” is not a depressing burden, as I feared when I first entered recovery.

“You’ve got it all backwards,” a fellow deacon said when I called him in a panic. “Every day you don’t drink is an oasis!”

Rather than being a burden, our spiritual disciplines can create in us an oasis, a place where we are free to greet the stranger whom we meet in our churches or as we follow Jesus out into the neighborhood.

And one last thing, these practices are mostly portable, making it easy to travel lightly.

Sure, we usually gather in a church building on Sundays and holidays, but the book we need for the Daily Office fits easily into a briefcase – in fact, you don’t even need a book, since the Forward Movement iPhone app works just as well!

And soaking daily in the Scriptures means that following God “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven … neither is it beyond the sea …. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:14).

The Word is Very Near You

Listen again to that word:

“We enjoyed you … and may God have mercy on you.”

These are the words of a woman who lives in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.

These are the words of someone whose own experience of powerlessness, death, and violence is being transformed by her endurance, empowering her to offer a blessing instead of a curse.

We may not be able to offer those same words – we are not at the same place in the cycle of gospel living – but we can also participate in the resurrection life.

For us it may require a costly admission or an unwelcome realization, and it may require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we hold onto so tightly.

But we, too, can know the peace of Christ, recognize it in our neighbors, and share it with those around us.

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among us, and remain with us always. Amen.