Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Would You Take a $20

Would You Take a $20

Suppose I hold up this relatively new $20 dollar bill, and ask how many of you would be glad to take it? Would you? If it were a $100 dollar bill you'd take it in a heartbeat! Suppose I were to crumple it up in my hands, would you still be willing to take it? Suppose I sully it in dirt and grime, how about then? Would you still take it? And if I were to toss it disdainfully on the ground and stomp on it and treat it as shamefully as I could, what would it be worth to you then?


Yes, it is still worth $20.

Some of you might be horrified at such treatment of legal tender. I was when I first heard the story. Something innately within me cried out for respect of legal tender. 

So then, what about you? How much do you suppose you are worth? Especially in the eyes of God? Suppose you are crumpled up by misfortune? Suppose you are dirty, grimy and sullied by sin of your own doing or somebody else’s? Suppose you are stomped on by oppression and shamefully mistreated at home or in the workplace or anywhere else; how much are you worth then in the eyes of God?

Exactly! Your value is not diminished in the least in the eyes of God whatever becomes of you. 

In Jesus’ campaign speech, or what we more commonly call the Sermon on the Mount, he was fond of saying this: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” ~Matthew 6:26 

In this same speech or sermon at the very outset, he blessed the poor and those who mourn, the meek and those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers, and he blessed also those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. He repeats the essence of this message in what biblical scholars refer to as the Sermon on the Plain which you can read in Luke 6:17-49. Because the essence of the message occurs in different places, many scholars suppose that Jesus went back to these themes time and again as he made his way around Galillee. 

What price then does God put on your head? Of how much value then are you? Can you put a price tag on a human life? your own or anybody else’s?

It is one of the mysteries of the Gospel that your life is worth as much as the life of the Savior. God gives his life for you in the person of Jesus. You are worth dying for. God will give his life for you. God did give his life for you in the person of Jesus. 

The Psalmist says "worship God in the beauty of holiness." What does it mean for us to "worship" God? Interestingly enough, if we look at the word “worship” in the dictionary, we learn that it is both a noun and a verb. As a noun it can be described as a feeling of reverence to God or to anything or to anyone that is sacred. Typically, worship comes with a set of rites and rituals to help us recognize that which is sacred and holy. As a verb, worship is the act of rendering reverence and homage to God or to something or someone who is holy. 

You see, when we come together week by week to worship God, we ascribe to God the Glory and Honor that is due God’s Name. We recognize God's worth to us. God's value is infinite, absolute, the ultimate worthiness of our lives. But what of your value as part and parcel in the act of worship? To me this is the key to our worship. We learn in these songs we sing, in these Holy Writings we listen to week by week, even on occasion, in a decent sermon or two, and above all in the sacrament; that God’s life has been and is being given for us in order that we might learn not of God’s worth alone, but our own as well. For insofar as God's worth is infinite, absolute and the ultimate reality of life, so too we come to discover the same of ourselves. 

In today’s first lesson, what upsets Elijah and this whole business of the prophets of Baal is that the folks had gone off to worship graven images. They had forgotten God. They actually had forgotten much more than what can be understood merely to be a petulant and jealous God. No, there is much more to this contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah than a bit of trickery as to who could make the carcass of a bull ignite in flames. 

What had happened is that the folks had forgotten their own worth in the eyes of God. For what really matters to God is that we understand our worth to God as much as God’s worth to us. Instead off we go chasing after some graven image or another time and again throughout our history.

In our own time, what is the object of our worship? What is our bottom dollar? In colloquial idiom we call it The Almighty Dollar as if it were a god to us. Take a good look at Wall Street; you may notice that there is a bull ensconced there and there are those whose greed and love of money reaches such an extent that the bull of Wall Street becomes an idol and an object of worship to many. I needn’t point out to you that at the bottom of the crash of 1929 or 2008 was greed gone wild. Time and again we need to learn and relearn that such misdirected worship will always come crashing down upon itself. 

In today’s Epistle, Paul notices a similar phenomenon. Have the folks forgotten the Gospel so soon? Are they chasing after other gods so quickly. Has the Gospel message become so quickly confused with the secularism of their time?

And what of today’s Gospel? It seems appropriate that a soldier comes to the fore on Memorial Day weekend. Jesus is astonished at his faith. In fact the entire Gospel passage is astonishing. This particular soldier has a profound respect for the Jewish People. That’s unusual right there. An occupation force is more likely to despise the people and the place it occupies and vice versa. But not so here. In fact, this particular Centurion was instrumental in building the Synagogue. Therefore both the Jewish elders and the Centurion have a profound respect and admiration for one another. For this particular Centurion, the slave who was sick was of deep value to him. The people were of value. Even their God was of value to him. And more than that Jesus was of value. He knew that as he gave orders to his soldiers, so too, all Jesus had to do was give the word. 

This is astonishing! Jesus said that nowhere in all of Israel had he seen such faith. Here was a man who understood what it meant to worship. Worship led him to value people, even if they were slaves, or a foreign people who worshipped a foreign God. For this particular Centurion people were of much more value than the whole pantheon of Roman gods. Nowhere had Jesus seen such faith. 

This soldier got it. This is what Jesus had come to teach us; "Love one another."

How astonishing indeed! Think of the foreigner in your life. Think of the slave and the poor and how well they are treated and spoken of. Think of those who worship God differently than we do. How well do we honor “the other” in our time and in our nation? 

Our lives are of immeasurable value to God. All lives do; domestic and foreign. However crumpled, sullied by sin or stomped on by oppression and violence, in the eyes of God we all remain of infinite value.

The Psalmist wants us to “sing a New Song to God”.
The Psalmist wants us to “worship the God in the beauty of holiness.” For then we shall see the beauty of holiness.
Then we shall see the holiness of all God's people.
"Sing to God a new Song!"

In the Name of God, the most holy, undivided and everlasting Trinity.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Mother's Day: Call it an Intervention!

Ascensiontide & Mother's Day

It is Ascension Sunday and we celebrate this day the fact that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God on high to become our Advocate and Judge. Isn't that a curious juxtaposition of words. How curious that these two words are set together so as to open for us a means to maintain an Honest to God creative tension. Jesus, at one and the same time an Advocate for us for the forgiveness of our sins, and Judge to keep us accountable to God and ourselves for our behaviors. As we read in the Book of Revelation; "See, I am coming soon, my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work." Thanks be to God. 

Happy Mother's Day. I do hope that there is an appropriate amount of fussing and flowers and dinners today in honor of those among us who give so much that we might know life, and love and joy. There will be some of that in our family, I can assure you. Having said that, I must tell you that my mom could be a feisty and ferocious woman. We did have our difficult moments. But she also gave me much to be thankful for including some backbone. Indeed, the apple does not fall far from the tree and I too can have my own feisty and ferocious moments. 

She loved us in her own way. I remember one day in particular, when I was still very young. I was venturing out on the rocks in Gloucester, and didn't realize how slippery those rocks could be. She called out for me to return, and I pretended not to hear her and continued further out on the rocks. She hollered out to me using my full name for emphasis in a way that indicated she was becoming somewhat irritated. I ignored her. And then my foot met one of those slippery spots which was as slick as grease. My feet went out from under. me, I went flying, and landed on my back. The impact knocked the wind out of me. When I looked up, there she was reaching out to me to carry me back to safety. She used some colorful language which I also learned from other members of my working class family in Somerville. It was an intervention that I shall never forget.

I learned that unconditional love and intervention have a direct relationship to one another.

May is the month of the Mother of Jesus especially so among our sisters and brothers in the Roman tradition. The example of of the Holy Family; Jesus, Mary and Joseph is exemplary as we take note of Mother's Day and that dimension of the human and Godly character that seeks to nurture and care and love. This dimension of our Journey to God is indeed worth noting and celebrating.

It is not surprising then that we see judgment and advocacy, and unconditional love and intervention as proclaimed this day as being two side of the very same coin. 

We love our children unconditionally, of course. But what do we do when we see them on a course of self-destruction? Shrug our shoulders as if there is nothing we can do until they hit bottom? Or do we put ourselves at risk and venture out on the rocks to snatch them out of the jaws of danger?

We live in an increasingly secular world. There are those who accuse us of holding onto "The God Delusion" as Richard Dawkins, the famous contemporary atheist calls it. It is a world that believes it can go it alone. That also includes many of our children. For so many we are children of science to the exclusion of any notion of God.

The problem of holding to such a notion is that it is simply not true. It is the greater delusion by far to think we can go it alone; either without God or without one another. As John Donne, the famous English metaphysical poet and Anglican clergyman once noted; 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

We discover time and again that we cannot go it alone. Even those of us who do believe in God, we need to learn every single day of our lives how urgent a matter it is to be Honest to God with ourselves and one another. 

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Albert Einstein once observed that "religion without science is blind" how true, but he went on to say "science without religion is lame". Interesting statement! Imagine looking at the wonder of the universe either in its immensity or at its most minute, without a reverence for the creation. What emptiness!

No, the Scientific method requires of us the curiosity and rigorous honesty to ask the right questions. It is not a pursuit of all the answers as much as it is the pursuit of framing the right questions. 

The same can be said of our Spirituality. For more than a quarter of a century, I have been keeping a journal in order to explore the inner mystery of my attempt to love God, love my neighbor and love myself. There are no easy answers. But it is not the answers that help me as much as the ability to frame up the questions. 

For me the search for inner truth, relational truth, scientific truth and Godly truth are all of the same sacred quest. It is the search for the Truth itself that is at the root of our deepest yearning; As Jesus said; "You shall know the Truth and the Truth that shall make you free". ~John 8:32

Call it an intervention; It is into this world that the Child is born.
God's Name is "Love". Love is much more than warmth. It is Honest to God Truth. You know that Jesus was a truth teller. Being honest brought him into conflict often particularly with the religious authorities of the day. Pharisees, Sadduccees, Scribes, and Doctors of the Law often found themselves in conflict with Jesus.

This God business is a matter the Joy of Jesus. It is also a matter of life and death folks, Honest to God!

I believe that without God, we set ourselves up for all kinds of sin. The human being is created to know and to love God. We are called into Covenant with God. To ignore this one central fact of our very creation is to put ourselves into great and immediate peril. 

This wonderful little story of Paul and Silas in Philippi in Macedonia is a case in point. They cured a fortune teller and seeing their hope of financial gain disappear, the folks conjured up some charges and Paul and Silas ended up in jail. The ensuing earthquake led the jailer to see himself in immediate peril and Paul then told him not to harm himself. The jailer then understood where he stood with God and declared "What must I do to be saved?" 

Paul tells him; "Believe on the Lord Jesus." There is more to belief than a few syllables. Belief is the fruit of that earth shattering realization that our entire being depends on an encounter with the living God. Baptism is a good beginning but it is only a beginning for each and all of us. Daily we turn to God. Moment by moment we set the compass of our lives to True North, Honest to God. 

Without salvation, we find ourselves subject to the sinful nature of a world that seeks to destroy us. Conflict, violence, hatred, bigotry, oppression and injustice are just the beginning of our sinful nature. We are also subject to the self destructive tendencies human nature is prone to. We may not always take the word sin seriously. We do so at our own peril.

What must we do to be saved? Believe. But when you believe put your heart and soul into it! Jesus the One Ascended to the Right hand of God is both our Advocate and Judge, thanks be to God. On this Mother's Day may our hearts be filled with all the fullness of God. 

In the Name of God, the Most Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity.

Fr Paul. 

Monday, May 02, 2016

Next: Good Shepherd, Reading

Greetings in the Name of God!

If the Paul the Apostle had a vision calling him over to Macedonia, then  Paul the parish priest had an email and a phone call inviting him to come on over to Reading to help out with you folks. I do hope I can be of some service to you while I am here. And so it is that on the first day of May in the year of our Lord 2016, we introduce ourselves to one another. As I wondered how to do so I thought perhaps I’d use something Biblical since that is always a good beginning, something theological since that only seems to make sense, and something personal since it always helps to put flesh and bones on our thoughts and prayers as we come to know one another.

First then, on to the Biblical.

Jesus said to Judas, not Iscariot, I hasten to add; "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them.” This is the example that Jesus sets for us. “Love one another as I have loved you.” And so, let me introduce myself to you by saying, I will love you exactly as you are and whoever you become along the way. This is how Jesus wants it. This is what God has had in mind all along. And moreover, as a church we are coming to discover that there are no exceptions to the essence and centrality of this proclamation. We are to love one another exactly as we are and whoever we become. In this journey, in this pilgrimage we call life, the core of the Gospel proclamation is set into the center of the human heart with these words of Jesus; “Love one another!”

That being the case within our faith communities we discover yet another dimension of the Gospel. And Jesus says as much in today's Gospel, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”

Having said this to you, I do not mean to make the proclamation sound glib or facile. You and I both know how difficult and challenging it is to live out the mandate of the Gospel in family or in faith community. For the truth is that we do find ourselves in conflict with some regularity. And there are times when this Peace of which Jesus speaks seems elusive and somewhat beyond our grasp. It is indeed a Peace that passes all understanding.

Which bring me to the second part of my self introduction.

Think for instance of what we have been through, indeed what we are going through culturally among the nations of the earth, within this nation and indeed within this church. Just in my lifetime I can name the struggles;
1. The struggle for Civil Rights.
2. Gender equality
 4. Prayer Book revision
3. Inclusivity of the LGBTQ community and marriage equality.
4. Class and economic disparity.

Every one of these struggles is an ongoing one. The church and the culture around is immersed gridlock. Instead of recognizing that God will bear us up on Eagle's wings, to soar as we are intended and destined to do, we deny either the left or the right wing it's right to even exist. No bird can fly, let alone soar without both wings.

Ultimately the biblical and theological reference I come back to time and again is from the Gospel of Paul the Apostle is in his letter to the Christians in Galatia in the third chapter and in the 28th verse; “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were 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.”

Ultimately our biblical and theological pilgrimage must bring us to The Cross and the Crown of Jesus. You will remember that when Jesus entered Jerusalem in great triumph, and he was greeted with joy by those who sang “Hosanna to the Living God. Blessed is he who come in the Name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest!” Events took a sudden turn after this greeting. For Jesus entered the Temple precincts and found the money changers and dealers in pigeons and rather unceremoniously overturned their tables and said “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people, but you have made it a den of robbers”.

I found something interesting about this passage when I looked it up. For when Jesus says; “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people”, he was actually quoting a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, which he often did. Isaiah was in fact, the most frequently quoted of all the prophets. In this case, when he confronted the dealers in sacrificial commodities, Jesus was not impressed with their approach to sanctification. It was only money, and the weightier issues of justice were far from their minds.

Some day, maybe even today, when you have a moment or two, read the passage from the 56th Chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Foreigners and Eunuchs wonder where they stood with God. Foreigners always have had a difficult time among the majority. There has often been an unpleasantness and an unwelcome dimension between natives and those born elsewhere. Likewise Eunuchs, those whose sexual identity was certainly ambiguous; whether physically or functionally so, there have always been folks among us who do not fit into the convenience of the male/female category. Jesus refers to this passage then when he confronted the Temple merchants.

From Isaiah 56:
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
   ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
   ‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
   who choose the things that please me
   and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
   a monument and a name
   better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
   to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
   and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
   and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
   and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
   will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
   for all peoples.”

Yes indeed, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people”. This is how the Episcopal Church and her congregations increasingly see themselves. Over the great west doors of the National Cathedral in Washington; since the very day it was built, these very words proclaim this vision.

So you see, I am under the very mandate of Jesus when I say to you “I will love you whoever you and and whoever you become.”  I hope I can live up to that noble proclamation as we live into our unfolding relationship.

And then thirdly, allow me to introduce myself to you with this vignette from my family.

One very hot and humid summer’s night while I was serving a church in West Virginia, my youngest son and I sat outside being honest with each other the way families need to be from time to time. He was feeling awkward, I could tell. There was something he needed to tell me but he was reluctant to say what it was for fear of how I might take it. After all, we were in West Virginia where families, schools and churches easily rejected people for the very reason he needed to tell me. He knew I often spoke about my unconditional love for him and for all people. But…

So I said; “Michael, what is it?”
There was a long delay.
Finally he told me. There were tears in his eyes, and his voice quavered with anxiety.
“Dad I’m gay”.
I confess, I din’t see that one coming. I wondered how he knew. He was still quite young. I wondered if somebody had “turned him that way.” But there he was. My own flesh and blood. I kinda wished he’d get married, settle down, have kids, because I think I’d make a fabulous grandfather. I wondered how Cindy would take the news. It did take time for us to get used to the idea. But my son sat there beside his father and he was teetering on the edge of love and rejection. It was then that God gave me the grace to say; “Michael, I love you exactly as you are, and I will love you whoever you become.” We embraced. We shed a few tears.

There was never a question in our home about the love. And there never will be. We will always work our the particulars of our salvation under the authority of the Gospel. Because Jesus loves us all whoever we are and whoever we become. This is how I seek to introduce myself to you: with the unconditional love of God. And so it is, that this I can say; “I will love you exactly as you are and whoever you become"

In the Name of God; the Most Holy, Undivided , and Everlasting Trinity. Amen.