Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Closing Time"

Preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009.

Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Are you secure? Do you have security? If you do what makes you feel secure? If you do not, how could you feel more secure? Being wrapped in your mother’s or father’s arms? Having a sizable bank account, or a comfortable home? Living in America with laws and rules and regulations that make life quite predictable? Being able to worship in this majestic church?

This stuff around us, religious trappings, homes, friends, won’t always be here. It might remain through most of our lives. But it might not. We think we are secure but it is oh so fragile. In Mark’s gospel passage today Jesus is with the disciples in Jerusalem. They marvel at the temple, that place built as a home for God to reside in, a very important concept in the Jewish tradition at that point, and Jesus says ‘Get over it!’ That won’t last and is not important. Can you imagine how incredulous the disciples must have been? ‘What is he saying?’ they might have queried. ‘This is the temple built to house God. Look at its size and grandeur, it is secure and stable,’ they may have continued. But Jesus says to them, ‘Get over it!’ Then they ask him when does this happen, when is the end time?

The thirteenth chapter of Mark is called the Little Apocalypse. It opens with this story then goes on to tell of the end times, the last days. There are some pretty sobering accounts and warnings: the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat; pray that it may not be in winter; the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light; false prophets.

There is a movie recently out called 2012. In it a planet is headed for the earth with certain destruction of the earth. The trailer shows destruction of the major buildings and monuments around the world that we know: the Vatican, the White House, the Washington monument. Mountains are flooded, ocean liners turned over. A Tibetan monastery on a high peak is washed away. The trailer looks pretty scary. It is based on the premise that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world December 31, 2012. There is a website 2012 that has had over a million hits. It is big news. People are worried so it seems. NASA has posted a notice on its website that there is no planet headed for earth. But it looks like an exciting movie!

When I was in the third grade there was a prediction of the end of the earth. I remember we kids were scared. The teacher, Mrs. Ellis, pulled the Bible out and read to us where Jesus tells us that no one will know the hour or the day. In this thirteenth chapter of Mark, verse 32, ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ Do not be afraid. A teacher couldn’t do that in most schools today… I remember in the 1960’s a woman named Jean Dixon predicted nuclear war in 1989 I think. And not too many years ago here in St. Louis Iben Browning predicted an earthquake based on a certain alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. Many were very worried including some of my office staff who prepared their homes and took December 9th off work.

We don’t know what is coming. But we do know that things change. Things that we are comfortable with, secure about, have been tremendously upset in our lives. 9/11 and the Madrid train bombings come quickly to mind; the fall of the World Trade Centers in New York. I had dinner at the top of the World Trade Center. Amazing that it is gone. Institutions that were stable icons of our existence are gone – IBM, Ma Bell, McDonnell Douglas, Enron. People invested in Enron and Bank of America thinking they were very secure, and lost huge life savings, retirements. Then we have ideologies that are gone. Who would have thought, those of us that lived much of our lives in the middle of the 20th century, that communism would fall. This week there were celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The Economist magazine wrote, “Even to those who had been confident of the eventual triumph of the West, the fall of the Berlin Wall was surprisingly accidental…Of all places it was in divided Berlin in divided Germany in divided Europe that the cold war erupted into an east-west street party” [20 years ago]. This week’s article goes on to say, “The destruction of the Iron Curtain on November 9, 1989 is still the most remarkable political event of most people’s lifetimes: it set free millions of individuals and it brought to an end a global conflict that threatened nuclear annihilation. For liberals in the West, it still stands as a reminder both of what has been won since and what is still worth fighting for.”

The world changes in ways that we cannot imagine. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union are staggering events. Nothing is permanent. Not stones on stones, not buildings, not ideologies, not Christ Church Cathedral, not us. No wonder management gurus tell us that dealing with Generation X’ers and Millenials is a whole different personnel management process. These young adults have seen ‘stable’ institutions and ideas crumble before them and have a very different idea of permanence. Don’t ask them to work for 30 years for ‘the corporation’ and get the gold watch! A different idea of permanence.

So what does this mean for us? For we who espouse Christianity and strive to live a life of faith? What is permanence? What is security? How are we to live?

Two Stories

The Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, tells a parable of a theater where a variety show is proceeding. Each show is more fantastic than the last, and is applauded by the audience. Suddenly the manager comes forward. He apologizes for the interruption, but the theater is on fire, and he begs his patrons to leave in an orderly fashion. The audience think this is the most amazing turn of the evening, and cheer thunderously. The manager again implores them to leave the burning building, and he is again applauded vigorously. At last he can do no more. The fire raced through the whole building and the fun-loving audience with it. “And so,” concluded Kierkegaard, “will our age, I sometimes think, go down in fiery destruction to the applause of a crowded house of cheering spectators.”

At the end of the 19th century two French writers went to visit the well-known French scientist, Pierre Berthelot. Berthelot was a kind of scientific prophet. He forecast some of the weapons of mass destruction which would appear in the next century. He said to the writers, “We have only begun to list the alphabet of destruction.” Silence fell over the meeting. Then the elder of the two writers said quietly, “I think that before that time comes, God will come like a great gatekeeper with his keys dangling at his waist and say, ‘Gentlemen, it’s closing time.’”

Brothers and sisters, it is closing time every day. Jesus asked the disciples, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” But he went on to say, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…’ Do not be alarmed. That reassurance of Jesus is couched in the middle of this sobering gospel passage but it is key. And Jesus repeats that message to us over and over. Do not be concerned. For we do not understand the ways of the world, the things to come, the tragedies, apocalypse, Armageddon. But we don’t need to understand them. For our lives are to be lived differently than worry about all that. Holy Scripture reminds us over and over of the birds of the air, the lilies of the valley and the loving care of our heavenly father – caring for all. Do not be concerned. Store up not treasures here on earth where moth and rust and thieves break in but store up treasures in heaven.

R.A.Charles Brown, an English priest of the last century said, ‘Christ did not come down to earth to unmake but to remake. So we are gathered up as fragments into the unity of humans and angels into Him who is our beginning and our end. There in the scrap of bread is dimly seen the triumph of life over death.’ The triumph of life over death is seen in the scrap of bread you will receive in a few minutes.

Life is a matter of building. Each of us has an opportunity to build something – a business, an edifice, a reputation, a family, a career, a relationship to God. But so many things are not permanent and can disappear in an instant. Daniel Webster offered this excellent advice. “If we work on marble it will perish. If we work on brass, time will efface it. If we rear temples, they will crumble to dust. But if we work on humans’s immortal minds, if we imbue them with high principles, with just fear of God and love of fellow beings, we engrave on those tablets something which time cannot efface, and which will brighten and brighten to all eternity.”

Bothers and sisters, we are to work on our relationship with God and with fellow human beings. And then we do not have to be afraid.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Scribes, widows and "Where did you go to high school?"

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009.

Of all the rules and laws we learn in our life, one of the first laws we learn is the law of the schoolyard. The Law of the Lunchroom. Think back to your school days … and maybe that means you only have to think back to Friday, but think back. Who are the cool kids? Even if it was 50 years ago, I’ll bet you don’t have to think long. It was 30 years ago for me and I can tell you … Mike Clements and Amy Breck and the people who hung out with them.

You know who the cool kids are. Everyone knows who they are – that’s part of what’s cool about them. And you also know that you didn’t hang with them or sit at their table unless you were one of them.

Now maybe you were one of the cool kids. Or maybe you just wanted to be one of them. Or maybe you were happy where you were. But wherever you were, you definitely don’t want to be at the other end of the spectrum, and you definitely don’t want to be the cool kids’ target, living at the bottom of the lunchroom food chain.

So here’s the law. In the schoolyard, in the lunchroom, in the social structure of children and teenagers you can try to climb the ladder and join the cool kids – and that’s not without risk -- but what you never want to do is slip down. You never want to lose the place you have, lest you find yourself rejected, at the bottom of the ladder.

And if you are at the bottom, you want to be as invisible as possible. Because you can learn to live at the bottom, but the last thing you want is to be the target of ridicule or worse from those who are at the top.

Now in one way or another, we all know this, and we all have our stories of how we have fit into it. And we also all know that it doesn’t end when you leave the lunchroom and the schoolyard. There’s still a cool kids table wherever we go and no matter how old we get. We call it different things now, but it’s still there … who is in the cool group and who is not. We sometimes get more sophisticated and politically correct about framing it … and sometimes we just get more brutal … but it’s all still there.

It’s like how we all laugh at that quintessential St. Louis question “Where did you go to high school?” but there’s an edge to our chuckle. Because we also know that how we answer that question is extremely important. Because based on that answer, we are slotted. We are given status and standing. And we know it.

And the rules remain the same, too. If you’re not part of the power group, there’s stuff you’re shut out of and places you can’t go. You can aspire to higher status and try to move up, but the one thing we are never supposed to do is to risk the standing we have. To embarrass ourselves. To do anything that would throw us down to the bottom of the food chain where we are rejected and laughed at and scorned.

And so we live lives bound by a subtle and unspoken fear – subtle and unspoken because almost as long as we can remember it has always been a part of our lives. Whatever power and standing you have, whatever you do don’t lose it, do what you need to do to preserve it and even gather more … but above all don’t do anything in the world to endanger it. Don’t slip down that food chain. Because you don’t want to pay that bill.

One of the most amazing people I have ever met is a priest in Nashville named Becca Stevens. Becca knows about people at the bottom of the food chain, the people who are the farthest orbit out from the cool kids table. She and her congregation founded an intentional community for women breaking the cycles of abuse that have them trapped in the world of prostitution, and those women are about as rejected by society as you can get. Becca commented to me once that we are a society that permits everything and forgives nothing. What she is talking about is a life bound by that fear. That fear of losing the power we have and even worse of having the wrath and ridicule of the more powerful focused on us. And because of that fear, we permit those of us with power and standing to get away with terrible things. I’m not just talking about Wall Street brokers gambling with people’s 401Ks or celebrities buying their way out of drug charges. I’m talking about when people like you and me are standing with a group of peers and someone makes a racist or sexist or homophobic comment or says something about someone else behind their back and we let it pass. We permit everything because we’re afraid of what might happen if we spoke up. We’re afraid of the joke being turned on us.

And on the flip side when people don’t have that power or standing, we forgive nothing. And that’s not just about the Don Imus’s and Bernie Madoff’s who have fallen from grace and have people who cozied up to them for years pretending they never knew them. That’s about anyone whose ever been pulled over for a DWB … you know what that is … driving while black. That’s about black and Hispanic people making up 24% of the U.S. population but 55% of the U.S. prison population(1). It’s about young black men with NO criminal record being less likely to be hired for entry-level jobs than the same young white men who DO report criminal backgrounds(2).

Yep, whether it’s a wedgie in the locker room, or what you say in the board room, the same rules apply. If you’re one of the cool kids, we permit everything. If you’re at the bottom of the food chain, we forgive nothing.

And so the message is clear. When you have power and standing, don’t risk it, do what you need to do to preserve it and above all don’t do anything in the world to endanger it. Because the last thing you want to do is find yourself on the outside looking in.

This is nothing new. Not only because this is how we grew up in the schoolyard and the lunchroom but this is how things have been for thousands of years. And we see it in this morning’s Gospel as Jesus contrasts two people – the scribes and a widow.

These are people on the opposite ends of the food chain. The scribes are educated and powerful. They’re the cool kids and they literally sit at the cool kids’ table. They have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. And Mark’s Gospel says they “love” these things. They love them more than anything and there is no way they are going to risk them … and in fact they are going to do everything they can to preserve them. And they know that just like today, they live in a society that permits everything and forgives nothing … so they aren’t taking any chances. They aren’t rocking any boats. They say long prayers so they’ll look really good and devour widow’s houses … and certainly don’t call each other on their terrible behavior. They are the ones with the power. And they use it all right. Use it to keep it. They’re not taking any chances.

And then there’s the widow. The widow has no power. In first-century Palestine, widows were among the most vulnerable people in society. In Hebrew law they had no right to inheritance so they were at the mercy of the heirs of their husband’s estates and whatever charity anyone else wanted to throw their way. But the widow still had something to lose. The widow had no power, but if she stayed anonymous and didn’t give anyone a reason to look at her. If she knew her place and kept to it, then even though she might not have power, at least she wouldn’t risk the wrath and ridicule of this society that permits everything and forgives nothing.

But that’s not what she did. In the midst of all these rich people coming forward and putting large sums of money in the treasury, this widow steps forward and puts in a penny. Now Jesus lauds her for giving out of her poverty, and she certainly did that … but that’s not all she did. She didn’t just give everything … she risked everything. Putting that tiny gift out there next to those huge gifts of the wealthy she risked ridicule and shame, she risked being told she didn’t know her place and being laughed out of a temple many of them thought she had no business being in to begin with.

And yet Jesus says the widow was the one who glorified God. Because the widow was the one who did what God did. God, who had all the power in the universe, didn’t hold onto that power but instead emptied the divine self into human form, even though that meant not only the pains of life but the risk of suffering and death, which of course is what ended up happening.

God didn’t live out of fear of a society that permits everything and forgives nothing. If God had, then Jesus would have been born a emperor instead of a refugee. But Jesus knew and that widow knew, too, that there is only one equation that matters and that is that love is greater than fear. So when Jesus grew in respect and people started calling him teacher. When Jesus started showing some cool kid potential, he could have taken the route of the scribes and used that power to get himself a place at that table. But instead he took the route of the widow, risking everything to offer his gifts in love. He hung out with and valued those most tossed aside by the world – tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely. And this morning, however cool or uncool we might be, he invites us to do the same.

Jesus puts these two examples in front of us – the scribe and the widow – because there really is no grey area between them. A hundred times, a thousand times a day we make choices big and small about which one we’re going to be. Will we use our power to preserve our power, to stay or become one of the cool kids? Or will we risk our power to love this world as God loves us, to love those who live furthest out from that cool kids table, to dance and sing and live out loud … and not care who is watching.

Will we support the health care plan that is best for us or the one that gives the most to those with the least?

Will we shop for the best bargain for us, or instead care more whether the people who made the products we buy were given a fair wage and work in safe conditions?

Will we go sit with the kid in the lunchroom who doesn’t fit in with the other kids, or pass the ball to the kid who is only being allowed to play because the teacher is watching, or talk to the person at coffee hour who is sitting off by themselves.

Will we get over our fear of ridicule to offer our own gifts in love? Will we sing and dance because it’s in our hearts even though we really are terrified what others’ might think? Will we float a new idea even though someone might call it stupid. Will we have the courage to speak truth to power instead of mumbling it to those who agree with us when power has left the room?

And most of all when we see other people having the courage and faith to do these things will we not only not throw rocks at them but actively stand with them and sing with them and dance with them and get each other’s backs.

Jesus’ holds up the scribes and the widow for us this morning and asks us if we as a Cathedral are going to care more about being respectable or being boldly loving, realizing that those two things don’t always come in conflict, but that when they do there’s a Gospel gut-check to be made.

Jesus holds up the scribes and the widow for us this morning and invites us to stop asking one another “where’d you go to high school?” and instead start asking ourselves “are we scribes or are we widows?” And together pray to God to help us choose wisely, boldly and together. AMEN.
1. Sabol, William J., PhD, and Couture, Heather, Prisoners at Midyear 2007 Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2008, NCJ221944, p. 7.
2. Todd Clear, Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse, p. 63.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

“Let your light shine! Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”

Preached by the Rev. Canon Renee Fenner at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009.

Good morning, saints! Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, which is undoubtedly one of the most important feasts in the Church year. All Saints is a day that calls us to prayerfully remember all those who have gone before us and to remember those who still walk among us. This morning I would like to share the story of a saint who touched my life.

Her name was Thea Bowman. She was born in the small town of Yazoo City, Mississippi. Thea was the granddaughter of a slave and an only child. Her father was a doctor whose patients paid their bills with eggs and chickens and all sorts of odd jobs. Her mother was school teacher who witnessed the poverty of children not only in the classroom but in her neighborhood and actually did something about it. Thea often told the story of her mother making tuna fish salad and placing scoops of it into ice cream cones. For some of her friends it was the only meal they had that day. The Bowmans were Methodists, so was Thea until one day she discovered a nearby Roman Catholic Church. At the age of nine years old Thea announced to her mother that she wanted to be a Catholic. When interviewed many years later, Thea said that it was not the beauty of the liturgy that drew her in. “It was not the doctrine (I didn’t know anything about that” she said); it was the witness of Catholic Christians who were really making a difference in people’s lives.” In her late teens Thea joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a Roman Catholic women’s religious order. Sr. Thea had a brilliant mind and taught in primary schools as well as at the university level. After 19 years of teaching, the bishop of Jackson, MS invited Sr. Dr. Bowman to become the consultant for the Office of Intercultural Awareness for the diocese of Jackson. Sr. Thea accepted the bishop’s invitation and worked feverishly to break down racial and cultural barriers. She was a strong advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised and spoke often about literacy and healthcare for all. She also made it her life’s mission to share her African American heritage and spirituality “in song, prayer, teaching, and preaching.” Boy, that woman could preach! By the time I met her in 1989 she had already been diagnosed with breast cancer. Did that slow her down? No! She only worked harder to bring people closer to God. And she had a knack for bringing out the best in us. She used to say: “You have a gift. You have a talent. Find your gift, find your talent and use it. You can make this world better by letting your light shine and doing your part. You can help somebody just by caring about somebody, just by loving somebody. And then when you get through showing them how much you love them, sometimes folks need to hear it, so make sure you tell them, I love you, I love you, I love you. I really, really, really, really love you!”*

To Thea, it didn’t matter if you were black, white, purple or green. It didn’t matter if you were male, female, gay or straight. It didn’t matter if you were Roman Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, or Jewish, if you had a church or no church at all. Everyone was a child of God!

In spite of the pain from the cancer that later riddled her bones, Sr. Thea, though wheelchair bound, was a constant source of hope as she traveled from one corner of these United States to other and from one continent to the other with a message of inclusion, of tolerance, of inspiration, and of joy in the Lord. Thea was not afraid to challenge laity and bishops alike. When she could no longer travel she taught from her sickbed. When asked about her impending death she would simply say, “I am going to live until I die.” That is what she did. My friend and mentor died in late March of 1990 at the age of 52.

Today are many schools, centers, and organizations named after this amazing woman. Sr. Thea Bowman is not an official canonized saint though I am told that her congregation, the Franciscan sisters, and others are making a case for Thea’s canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. Regardless of whether her name goes through that rigorous process or not-she is a saint to many. I admire her not only for her strength and courage but for the way she pointed everyone to Christ. She always reminded her hearers to let their lights shine. “Your light is supposed to shine!” she would say. “Don’t hide it under a basket!” Then with a chuckle she would sing, “Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!” Her life fits one of the best definitions of a saint I’ve ever read. It comes from the former dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, the Rev. Alan Jones who once said, “Saints are those persons whose lives are so transparent to God that God’s light shines through them into the life of the world, and into its structures, organizations, and programs.” That is just so right on!

There is a great story of a mother and young son who stopped to pray in a church that had many beautiful stained-glass windows. The boy kept interrupting his mother’s prayers, asking her who was pictured in this and that window. The mother would explain, “That’s St. Joseph.” “That’s St. Andrew.” The boy was silent for a moment, then he said, “I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a saint.” “Why, Billy,” the mother replied, “you don’t even know what a ‘saint’ is.” “I do so,” the boy said. “A saint is a person the sun shines through.”

Have you known people like this? Whose lives are so transparent that all you can see is God’s radiance? Perhaps we do a disservice to this Feast of All Saints when we ONLY remember those saints who are immortalized in stained-glass and stone or whose names appear in our calendar.

Look around you. Go ahead, look around you and see all the other people sitting in this service. There are people you know and people you don’t know at all. There is probably someone or perhaps a few someone(s) you know by sight but for whatever reason you’ve never gotten a chance to speak to. See the visitors and guests among us. Now, think of those persons who are away today and those who cannot be here because of illness or infirmity and other reasons. Think of those persons who were once part of this community who have moved away. Imagine the thousands of people who have been a part of Christ Church Cathedral for 190 years. Now, imagine those yet to come. And finally think for a moment of those you have personally loved, whose lives touched yours in some way, who have gone home to God. ALL of these people, all of us, are members of the communion of saints we honor this day.

Today let us remember that there is nothing that keeps you and I from being saints in this journey called life. There is nothing that can keep us from living godly lives except living selfishly for ourselves. There is nothing that can keep God’s radiance from shining forth in us. Let us each continue to reflect God’s glory in this world. And let God’s light/your light shine. “Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”

*taken from “Thea Bowman: In My Own Words”, compiled and edited by the Rev. Dr. Maurice J. Nutt, C.Ss.R., page 73.

For further reading on the life and witness of Sr. Thea Bowman please see:

“Thea Bowman-Handing on Her Legacy”, edited by Christian Koontz, R.S.M., Sheed & Ward (a service of National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, Inc.), 1991

“Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches”, edited by Celestine Cepress, FSPA, forward by Mike Wallace, St. Mary’s Press, 1993.