Monday, January 26, 2009

Stick to the Message

Sermon preached on Sunday, January 25,the Sunday of our Annual Meeting (Epiphany 3B): Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

I come to you at the time of our Annual Meeting with mixed news. Some things look good, others do not. I must be honest and say I have been filled with some uncertainty over the past months. There are some forces at work about which I do not know what to do (and those of you who know me well know that it is hard for me to admit that).

Two things, in particular, are troubling. The current economy and our long history of overuse has meant a precipitous decline in our endowment funds—somewhere above 50% over the past three years. We can no longer count on them to sustain us, as we have for a generation.

Second of all, average Sunday attendance has also dropped precipitously in the last year—20%. The Vestry and I have wrestled with this and we don’t exactly know what it is about. It is probably the perfect storm of several factors coming together. However it came about, though, it is troubling.

The news is not all bad, I must say. Giving is up; especially average weekly giving is way up. The number of kids in the parish is up slightly. Generally speaking I think the spirit of the place—of you and I—is good. This is a relatively happy place, and not everyone can say that.

These things are good but there is also those things that trouble, and they cannot simply be ignored.

Over the past four years (this is my fifth Annual Meeting, can you believe it?) I have spoken much about thriving rather than surviving. I have come on, at times, like gangbusters with lots of ambitious plans. Some of them have worked! That’s the good news.

But I do not come to you this morning with ready solutions to our problems. They do not lend themselves to ready solutions or quick fixes. We are going to have to come to these solutions together. My bag of tricks is not enough on its own.

We are in a great place of paradox. There are some ways in which we are thriving. I believe that, and I don’t think it is just a pipe dream. And yet there are other ways in which we are on our way to barely surviving. Thrive or survive, which is it? I wish I knew.

What is our future about? How do we even have a future? I look to the readings this morning for some answers to those questions and I find they tell us four things:

· Believe that God is in what is happening to you;
· Trust in God;
· Keep a sense of urgency;
· Stick to the message (and find ways to spread it).

The reluctant prophet Jonah preaches to the city of Ninevah, a place where things are so bad that Jonah is of the opinion God should simply wipe it off the face of the earth. Ninevah is the Sodom and Gomorrah of Jonah’s day, and Jonah wishes God would do to Ninevah what he did to those notorious cities long ago.

Yet God sends Jonah with a warning, leaving open the possibility that the people might just repent and then God could change God’s mind about them. What is Ninevah being asked to do?

The simple word is “repent,” but it is a word that has a richness of meaning. Ninevah is being asked to take an honest look at its life, set that beside an honest view of how God desires humankind to live, and be willing to change when it sees the difference. Remarkably the story says they do just that; they change and then God changes God’s mind.

The text literally says, “They believed God.” What did they have to believe in? They had to believe that God was truly ready to act in their lives and that they could believe that God could change his mind about them. And the story is that is what came to pass.

I take this to be saying to us that we need to be honest about the state of our affairs. This is not a time for sugarcoating. Let’s be honest. But let’s also see God present in where we are and believe that there is still hope for us, just as there was for Ninevah. Now is no time to abandon hope. It is, rather, time to believe all the more that God has a purpose for us.

The psalmist builds on this with a simple message of profound trust.

Put your trust in [God] always, O people,
Pour out your hearts before [God]; for God is our refuge.

Now is the time to trust in God. That’s why I had us sing “I will trust in the Lord” a few minutes ago. It is precisely what we need to do. Without that trust we are lost.

So believe that God is in this moment and trust in this same God as the one who has a purpose for us and with whom we can hope.

Third, maintain a sense of urgency. Paul believed that Jesus was returning soon and so he exhorts his people to act with all urgency. Don’t get caught up in the attachments of the moment. Remember something bigger is going on and breaking in even as we speak.

Christians (or at least most of us) have long ago resigned ourselves that Jesus is not returning soon. But we haven’t stopped longing for it, and we should continue to live in a sense of urgency about it. That urgency allows God to break through in all kinds of little ways to bring in the kingdom of God in our lives and the life of the world around us.

Be an urgent people even when it seems like there is nothing to be urgent about.

I believe that attitude is key for us. We must not lose our edge. It is so easy to do that when the seas are choppy and it seems like you’re hanging on for dear life or when it seems like continued decline is just inevitable.

Don’t give into that, Paul would tell us if he were alive today. Keep your sense of urgency, keep your edge. Defy the odds. You can do that, because God stands ready to break in. Glory stands ready at the door. Seek it with all your heart.

Lastly we are told by this morning’s Gospel to keep to the message and find ways to spread it. The message is that the Kingdom of God is at hand and we need continually to change our minds, turn around, to see that and believe it to be true. And this Kingdom of God, we believe, is for absolutely everybody. That is the message this place holds dear; it is the core of our very being as a church. We must not waver from it.

And we also must continue to find ways to call others into it. We must fish for people. That means keeping our line in the water, finding, if you will, new ways to bait the hook, looking for new places to cast our lines.

Believe God is in our present moment, unpleasant as some aspects of it are. Trust that God is for us, wholly and completely. Maintain our edge, our sense of urgency. Stick to the message and keep fishing.

There is a bottom line to all of this that we all need to hear. God wants this place to exist. God has a purpose for us. Despite all that has happened and is happening to us, God wants us to be. Anything we do in response to the many forces that are at work on us must have this as its grounding. Despite all that is, I still believe it is true, and I invite you to join me in this belief. It’s sort of a Yogi Berra-ism. If we believe it together than we can all believe it.

Do I have my moments of doubt and uncertainty? Of course I do, and I suspect each one of you does as well. We are, after all, human, and at our heart a pretty pragmatic, realistic people.

But God calls us to be more than that. God calls us to be God’s people, full of faith, hope and love in spite of all signs to the contrary.

The last year or so is not the journey I would have chosen, either for myself personally, or for this parish. But it is the journey we are on. Let’s be real about it, but trust anyway, and let’s keep proclaiming the message that will keep us alive. The Kingdom of God is at hand for absolutely everybody!

As long as we can say that, then God has a purpose for us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Our Better History

Twenty-five of us watched the Inauguration together in the parish hall today. In Two Saints fashion, we ate some great food and enjoyed one another's company. It was a privilege to be together on this great day. The internet "stream" we were watching went down a third of the way through the speech and we were disappointed, but I don't think our spirits flagged a bit. We were just happy to be together on this most amazing day.

We closed by doing that thing we do in season and out of season, our way of saying "thank you" no matter what. We celebrated the Eucharist together and for the homily shared one another's thoughts. They all were powerfully grateful and hopeful.

As a Christian, I wear my citizenship somewhat lightly. I have a greater allegiance to God and all of humanity that must always be my ultimate concern. With this truth always in mind, God does call me to be "a good citizen," working for the common good and the dignity of all in the country in which I happen to live. And I do not believe God begrudges us a love of country, so long as that love does not dimish the freedom and dignity of others or keep us from seeing the truth when the truth needs to be seen. Having said all this, it was easy to love America today. We have lived into our better nature with this election and redefined what is possible under that old hoped for "American dream."

I finally got to watch the entire speech. A little phrase stuck with me; it was easy to miss, spoken in one of his more hushed moments. "Our better history." What a privilege to be present when "our better history" is made manifest. And indeed what a privilege to be alive to see history literally change before our eyes.

Thanks be to God for this day! Now we must be even more diligent in our prayers, as we must be in making our better history in this hour of trial. May our new President flourish and all of us with him.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Epiphany

Isaiah 52:7-10
v.1a How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messanger who announces peace, who brings good news...
v. 7b ...and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

To have an "epiphany" is suddenly to realize something is true. It is the proverbial light bulb going off in the head. Aha! What the "Aha" is today is two-fold.

The first "Aha" is Jesus Christ himself. He is both the messanger of good news and the good news itself--the salvation seen to the ends of the earth. And all of this, at least for the magi, whose story we tell today, in a helpless little baby. We are not told their reaction to the baby other than the offering of their gifts. But it was enough of an "Aha" that they returned home by another way, avoiding King Herod who had asked to see them before they left.

The second "Aha" is us. We Gentiles. "Aha" this day says, we are part of the great kingdom of God too. The good news is for us, the salvation for us. The astounding natue of this "Aha" is lost on us. We are used to being included, in fact now we run the show. But that wasn't clear at the start, not at all.

It's a good day to remind ourselves of and celebrate the basics. Jesus is the bearer of good news and that good news is for us. God's salvation includes you and me. Now the rest of Epiphany season we will focus on just what consequences there are to this good news. If Jesus is the light of the world, how am I called to share this light?

It has been fun to write these little reflections during Advent and Christmas and I'm actually a little sad to stop. I hope some of them have been helpful to some of you. I'd welcome any feedback you have. My plans are to take this up once again during Lent.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The 12th Day of Christmas

Joshua 1:1-9
v. 9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you whereve you go.

On this last day of Christmas we read from the beginning of the book of Jesus' ancestor and namesake, Joshua (Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua). In verse 9 is spoken as good a summary of the consequence of the good news of Christmas as one can come by. "For God is with you wherever you go." This is the God who has been revealed as "Emmanuel," "God is for us," or "God is with us."

This good news does require something of us, and really quite a significant thing. We have to constantly "be strong and courageous" and not "frightened or dismayed." Some days this is easier said then done. It is hard to choose strength over fear some days. And some days dismay gets the best of our courage. We are required to choose to live toward strength and courage, however, come what may.

The good news is not so much that we can do this choosing--some days we are better at it then others--but that God has already chosen to be our God, and this will never change. God will always be "Emmanuel." The incarnation was not a temporary thing--God putting on human clothes to teach us a lesson. Jesus remains "truly human," we believe, which is to say that God always stays on our side.

If some days we find this hard to believe, that is only natural. Those days we have to rely on the promises of God, rather than our own abilities, and if we can't even go that far, then we can depend on the other great gift of Christmas, which is one another. If you can't believe today, I will believe for you, but I may very well need for you to return the favor tomorrow.

We sung in Advent, "O come, O come Emmanuel." Emmanuel has come, and Emmanuel remains for ever.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Second Sunday after Christmas

Ecclessiasticus (Sirach) 3:6-9, 14-17
vv. 3-4 Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who store up treasure.

Today's reading is from the apocryphal book of the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, or "Ecclesiasticus" (not to be confused with Ecclessiastes, a book of the Old Testament). The Apocrypha is a collection of writings that are accepted as part of the Old Testament by Roman Catholics, not by most Protestants, and by some, like us, put in a separate section and labeled "helpful but not authoritative."

Sirach is a collection of Wisdom sayings. Like all wise sayings they deal in ideals. The formula is something like "if this (good/evil) is happening as it should happen, then this (good/evil) will be the result." The reality is, of course, sometimes this is true and sometimes it is not. Nevertheless these are the (sometimes annoying) things your parents and grandparents tried to teach you and they really do work that way most of the time.

Our reading is from a section on the duties to one's parents. Here it feels like we are on shaky ground. Our relationships with our parents are as varied and complicated as there are numbers of us. Some of us have great relationships with our father or mother, others of us don't, and most of us live somewhere in between.

It seems important to me that when the Bible talks to us about our relationship with our parents it always uses the words "honor" or "respect." It does not use the word "love." It doesn't even use the word "like!" This says to me that underneath the surface the Bible knows all about dysfunctional families (there are, after all, some whoppers in the Bible). Whatever the "functionality" of my relationships with my parents, I am called to have a basic and thoroughgoing respect for them. For some of us even this much is hard, but at the very least the bibilcal view is that the exception should not prove the rule.

There came a point in my life after I had done everything I could do to separate myself from my parents (the kinds of things most of us do, no matter what era we grew up in) that I had to say, "Yet these are my parents, a fact that will never change." That was the tipping point of respect. From there I could go on to admit the many was in which I am actually like them, and that in leaning to respect them I was actually also learning to repect myself.

The magi...

...who found coins in their pieces of the Epiphany cake.

The 12 Days of Christmas: The Video

Performed by parishioners of St Stephens and St Luke & St Simon Cyrene at the Epiphany party this morning...

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The 10th Day of Chrstmas

Genesis 28:10-22
v. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.

As we come up to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) when we celebrate the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, we begin to reflect more on the Epiphany theme of "revelation," particularly the revelation of the God of Israel to all people.

That the God of Israel would be the God of all people is not a New Testament proposition. Jesus didn't invent it, nor did Paul. It was buried deep in the primordial history of Israel. In today's reading Jacob (later to be re-named "Israel") has a dream in which he is told that his people will be a blessing to all people. As the prophet Isaiah would say centuries later, the people of Israel were called to be "a light to the nations." It was never supposed to be just about them.

All of us want to be special, be it as individuals or as some group of which we are a part. This is certainly true in the Church. We are called special by God: God's beloved. We are special in God's eyes both as individuals and as a community of faith. On the other hand, our specialness is never to be just about us. Our specialness has a purpose, to spread, if you will, that specialness around, far and wide, as far and wide as we can imagine, and farther.

"Blessing" is not just something God does to us. It is something we are called to do for others in the name of the Blessed One.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The 9th Day of Christmas

Genesis 12:1-9
v. 8 From there [Abram] moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD.

Someone's impulse on these last days of Christmas was to give us for readings from the Hebrew Scriptures a few "great moments" from the story. This morning it is the call of Abram to leave his home and travel to the land of Canaan.

"So what does Abraham have to do with Christmas?" I wondered, as read this story. The reading was supposed to end at verse seven, but I read on to nine where the paragraph ended. In verse eight I spotted a familiar phrase and the "Christmas lights" went off: "pitched his tent."

In John's poem about the incarnation that begins his Gospel, these are the words literally used to describe the coming of "the Word" among us. "And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us," most translations say. It is literally, "pitched his tent."

I've always loved knowing that literal reading. It is a much earthier image than "dwelled" or "lived." It seems more akin to Luke's story of Jesus being born in a barn. This is a picture of God among us common folk (I say, even though I do not "pitch a tent" for any reason, and was born in a very clean, if small, hospital--privileges of which I need to remain aware).

Now I love the image even more. It echoes back to Jesus' primordial ancestors in faith, Abraham and Sarah. It ends up they were not only following the direction of God but were being a "type" of God as well. They were showing the world the God who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, who not only leads his people to impossible places, but is willing to go there himself.

So, it turns out, Abraham has everything to do with Christmas because he shows by his faith the God who has faith in us, enough faith to become one of us.

A continuing Merry Christmas!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Holy Name Day

Genesis 17:1-2, 15-16
v. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram [exalted ancestor], but your name shall be Abraham [ancestor of a multitude], for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

Holy Name Day, the 8th Day of Christmas, celebrates the traditional day on which Jesus would have been circumcised and named by Jewish custom. His Hebrew name is Yeshua (Joshua in English). "Jesus" comes from the Greek version of Yeshua. The name means "The Lord is salvation," or "God saves."

Names are extremely important in the Bible, and particularly in the Hebrew Bible what those names mean ae important, for they are often contracted Hebrew phrases or sentences. Occasionally, like Abram and Sarai, new names are given at an especially important moment in the person's life. For Abram and Sarai this was the moment when the promise that they would have a child would finally come true. Other well-known biblical name changes are Jacob to Israel and, in the New Testament, Simon to Peter, and Saul to Paul.

Many of our names mean something as well, perhaps not for what they literally mean but for how they were acquired. Sometimes these two things don't have anything to do with one another. For instance, I was named "Michael" because thousands of children were named "Michael" in 1961 (there were three of us in my high school classof 42). My parents had no idea that they were naming me a Hebrew name that means, "One who is like God," (a meaning I try not to take too seriously--I like to think of it more as a challenging question--Who is like God?).

I am always comforted that we remember the name of Jesus on this New Year's Day. it means to me that come what may this year (and much will come completely out of my control), it will remain true that "God saves."

Happy New Year! God saves! That is your highest and true name.