Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A: "The gift of glorious, impossible, insanity."

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 

I’ve got a question for you. Suppose I told you that this week we found out that a splinter group called the Anglican Church in North America was saying that because Christ Church Cathedral had departed from what they view as a correct interpretation of scripture they were suing us for ownership of the Cathedral and demanding that we turn over control of this building to them by January 1, 2011.

What would your response be? Why?

Congregation responses were along the lines of “No way, ” “Fat chance,” and “because it’s ours.” And “because that’s crazy” … one person asked if they’d take the Tuttle building instead.

OK, What if I told you that Chapter met last Thursday night and voted to give not only the Cathedral building but the Tuttle Building and the parking lot to the Anglican Church in North America as of January 1. What would you think of your Cathedral Chapter and their decision?

How many people would agree with that decision? Raise your hands. No hands were raised.

How many people think that the Chapter would have been negligent in their responsibilities to the Cathedral and the Diocese? Raise your hands.

Many hands went up.

Suppose Jim McGregor stood up here and, with you all holding your pitchforks and tomatoes said here’s why we did this:

“In Matthew 5:40, Jesus said, “When someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your cloak, too.”

How many would think Chapter was even crazier than before? Lots of hands went up.

And you know what, you’d be right. By every standard we are used to measuring things, that decision would be crazy. If this scenario played out, the world would call us crazy. And by every standard but one, we absolutely would be. But that standard is the standard of God in Jesus Christ. The standard of the Gospel. That standard wouldn’t necessarily tell us whether that decision was right or wrong. But it would say that the process we used -- the process of really listening to what Jesus said on the topic, the process of really struggling with not just what was the legal thing to do or the smart thing to do but what would Jesus have us do – that proces was right on the money. And it would say that if people were calling us crazy, that was a good sign that we were on the right track.

Our readings from the Bible each Sunday are selected in a three-year cycle, with a different primary Gospel for each year. Each new year begins in Advent. Last year, we heard from the Gospel according to Luke. This year, we get Matthew. And Matthew’s got a whole lot of crazy in it.

For Matthew, the Gospel is primarily a how-to book. It’s a training manual for disciples of Jesus. Matthew wants to take the law – the way that the people have been told they were supposed to live for hundreds and hundreds of years -- and say all of that has been summed up in one life … the life of Jesus. Matthew has a simple message for us. He tells the story of Jesus and says, “be like this.” And the story of Jesus is pretty unusual.

Take the story of Jesus’ birth. We’re used to the Luke story. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and her incredible act of courage in saying yes to God. Shepherds and angels. It’s a beautiful story.

Matthew’s story is different.. First of all, in Matthew’s story, Joseph is the main character. Second, Matthew doesn’t spend a lot of time painting a picture.  Instead he tells a simple story with a very clear, three step pattern that runs throughout this whole Gospel. Here’s how it goes:

Step one: God or Jesus makes a statement or gives a direction that sounds absolutely crazy, with the only rationale being “because that’s my dream for the world.”

Step two: If you believe the crazy statement or follow the crazy direction, it means you are a disciple. If you don’t, you’re not.

Step three: Because following directions everyone else says are crazy is really hard, God promises to be with us every step of the way. Throughout the Gospel, God promises that we will never have to do this alone.

You see this pattern in this morning’s Gospel. Let’s walk through it. We start with the crazy statement:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

OK! Stop right there! Did you get that? We’re being told to believe that Mary became pregnant without the help of another human being?  And not only that, we’re told this in a completely matter-of-fact way, like instead of Matthew saying “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” he was saying “…and she was found to have a fondness for hummus.” He doesn’t give any explanation of how or even why.  And not only are we, as disciples in training, being told to believe this, Joseph, who by the way is engaged to this woman who has somehow shown up pregnant, is supposed to buy this, too! Pretty crazy.

OK. Step two. Now we get the crazy direction.

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Boom! Stop there. Joseph, you’re supposed to marry someone whom everyone will think is an adulterer – a crime potentially punishable by death, by the way. And perhaps end up with everyone thinking you are an adulterer, too.  Without any guarantee that this will all work out OK. Without any explanation why except for God saying, “because I said so.”

OK, That’s Step Two. That leaves Step Three. Now, we get the promise:
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him, Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”’
You see, God knows this sounds crazy, and that’s why the very name of the child God is asking Joseph to adopt is a promise that God will be with him every step of the way. And, for good measure, God gives Joseph and Mary, the two people who said yes to all this insanity, God gives them to each other in marriage so neither one has to go through this alone.

In Matthew’s how-to Gospel of discipleship, there are three steps we’re supposed to follow. To hear God tell us something crazy. To believe and follow it without expecting or creating a rational explanation. To trust that God is with us and to look for and embrace the partners God gives us in this absolutely crazy life of following Christ.

Now this isn’t some call to biblical literalism or fundamentalism.  One of the reasons I’m an Episcopalian is that we don’t read scripture literally but use tradition and reason to help us interpret it. The problem is how we’ve used that word “reason.” “Reason” is supposed to be the process of us as a community coming together and using our thoughts, prayers and conversation to discover how a Christ who at every turn rejected the wisdom of the world means for us to live here and now.

But instead way too often, we use it as a qualifer for following Jesus. Follow Jesus … when what he’s saying makes sense.  We take the Gospel message and we take what makes sense to the world and we look for where the Venn diagram merges and we call that small section of it discipleship.

The problem is, the God who told Joseph “don’t be afraid to take Mary for your wife”  promises us many things, but making sense isn’t one of them. It’s actually the opposite. This is the same God who sings to Isaiah “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.”  We follow a Jesus who every time we think like Alice in Wonderland and say “there’s no use trying, one can’t believe impossible things” invites us instead to be like the White Queen believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast! 

Impossible things like:
*Love your neighbor as yourself.
*When someone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other one toward him.
*When someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well.

Impossible things like
*Rejoice when people curse you and criticize you
*Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow me.

Impossible things like “You are the light of the world.”

Jesus doesn’t let the world define crazy and sane because, frankly, the world doesn’t have that good a track record in the sanity department.

Look around us.

Look around and you’ll see a world where a child dies every three seconds of stupid preventable poverty.

Where we’re told it makes sense to spend billions of dollars on weapons to kill each other but we can’t afford to give millions of people basic medical care.

Where we’re told we should fear someone because of the color of their skin or what they believe.

Where I’m told that two people of the same sex who love each other is a threat to my marriage.

Where we’re told that a great way to celebrate the birth of Christ is to buy people who already have more junk than they know what to do with, more stuff that they don’t need in the first place.

And we’re letting this world tell us that Jesus is crazy?

Madaleine L’Engle calls the birth of Christ “The Glorious Impossible” … and as the body of Christ, that’s what we get to be, too: The Glorious Impossible. We get to hear things that the world says are insane. We get to come together and think and pray and talk, and without fear or rationalization really try to figure out how Jesus means for us to live like that. And then we get to believe impossible things and do impossible things and follow a God who promises never to leave us, and rejoice when people curse us and feel blessed if it makes us poor. 

This week as we prepare for Christmas, I have a challenge for us to walk in Joseph and Mary’s footsteps just a little. As you return from receiving communion you’ll pass by a basket with slips of paper in it. Each slip of paper has a passage from Matthew on it. Something that some people might think is absolutely crazy. I invite you to reach in and take one. Then let the passage rest on your heart this week. Share it with a friend or a family member, remembering that God invites us into the impossible but promises we’ll never go it alone. Ask yourself: “What is Jesus inviting me to believe? To be? To do?”

As we move toward Christmas, let’s spend this week not thinking about what makes sense but about how God is inviting us to believe gloriously impossible things and live in gloriously impossible ways. To celebrate the absolute craziness of a God who wanted to be born as a refugee child in a stable, and who invites us to be that gloriously, impossibly, crazy, too.  AMEN.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 3, Light Fixture or Chandelier, Preached by Archdeacon Sluss at St. John's Tower Grove.

A little old lady from a tiny rural Episcopal Church in Nebraska passed away.

She decided to leave her meager wealth to the church for a brand new chandelier.

Her lawyer contacted the vestry about the wishes set in her will.

And the vestry meets and deliberates, and has discussions about her wishes.

They eventually draft a letter to send to the lawyer.

They say that though they are very thankful for her gift, they find that they are unable to accept the gift, for three reasons:

1. No one can spell chandelier.

2. Even if we had one, we’re sure the organist wouldn’t know how to play it.

And 3, what we really need is new light fixtures.

Now if you like that joke feel free to use it. If you do not, don’t blame me I got it from the Canon Precenter of the Cathedral Pat Partridge.

A gift given, even though we don’t know that it is exactly what we needed.

In hindsight I tend to see the truth of god’s blessings in the events in my life, after they have occurred.

I wish I could recognize those grace filled moments while they were happening, Instead of always understanding the grace given to me after the fact.

My perception is too narrow at times. I cannot it seems, see the grace because I am too involved in the aspects of my life.

I have not, though I wish to, given my all aspects of my whole life to God.
I still try to hold on to some things. Try to take control.

Thinking that perhaps that I shouldn’t have God worry about such petty things in my life, like I only have a few favors to ask of God.

That is why God gives us the gift of the community.

The gift of the church, to be with each other to have others to point out to us those grace filled moments.

When I lost my job last year, I for once allowed my self to be prayed for, allowed myself and my predicament to be open to the cathedral community, heck to the entire diocese.

It was this act of allowing those who knew my needs to pray for me, to raise me up. That sustained me in those times of doubt.

My family in Christ were the ones who helped me realize that God’s gift to me in the situation was having me lose my job. I was in a job I hated, and it was only in losing that job was I ready to make the move. Ready to trust that I would be cared for.

Ready to change my point of reference my perspective in what was going on in my life. From being so self perceptive, to community perceptive.

Seeing that one sure gift of God’s grace to me was my church family, and the realization earlier rather than in hindsight, of the grace of god working in my life.

God often has different things in mind for us. Better things than what we believe we need.

That is the promise of belief in God and a belief in the Savior gives us. God will give us better things than we can imagine.

You see sometimes what we get we don’t realize it’s just what we need.

That is what some in ancient Judea saw with Jesus.

Their Messiah was supposed to be this great warrior.
Who would kick out the Romans, restore the lineage of David.
Bring in a new era, of power and grace, to exceed Solomon’s reign.

And what did they get in Jesus, a poor, mendicant preacher. Roaming the countryside, eating with the unclean and outcasts.

This guy while preaching the good news of the kingdom of god, isn’t giving them what they expect.

For the past few weeks we have John the Baptist in the wilderness proclaiming that Jesus is this Messiah the one whom he says he’s unworthy to hold his shoes! The one he and his followers have longed for the messiah to return Israel to the favored people of God.

Only here is Jesus, he hasn’t raised an army. He’s preaching peace! He’s speaking of the kingdom as already being here, or near. How can that be, we still have the Romans with us.
And what’s more now he (John) is in jail! About to die.
So John’s question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

He wants light fixtures, but gets a chandelier! He doesn’t understand what it is he’s gotten. So Jesus’ answer reminds him.

“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

You will notice that Jesus doesn’t answer John’s question, “are you the one?” with a yes or a no. Instead he tells John’s disciples, “tell John what you hear and see”

The proof of who the messiah is, is not in some definitive, proclamation of Jesus or in some preconceived expectation that we have, but in the fruits of what Jesus has done.

“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In our baptism we vow to follow Christ as our savior to put our whole trust in his grace and love. We put our faith in this kind of a Messiah.

You want the Messiah? this is what you get with the messiah. All of Israel, (all of the world), made whole, in the sight of God. Not just one facet of the world saved, but the whole world.

So what is our reaction when people ask us, are you a Christian? What should be our response? The answer is as Jesus’ not a yes or a no, but “look at me, what do you hear and what do you see?”

We are to live our lives into our baptismal covenant. We are to resist evil, and repent, when we sin (and we will sin).
(Deacons call the world to repentence, when we bid and lead the confession)

We are to proclaim the good news, especially to those who have not heard the gospel.
(when we proclaim the gospel we proclaim the gospel, not our interpretation on it)

We are to serve all persons, and we are to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.
(the poor, the sick, the lonely all those special population stated in our ordination vows)

All of these we should do, in proclamation that we are Christians.

This is also what we in the order of deacons are called to do. We are to be iconic of the servant Christ at work in the world.

Pointing out to the Church that with Christ as our light, that we together as his body in the world, compose those many lights of that chandelier.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 3A: "The Greatest Show on Earth!"

Preached by the Rev. David K. Fly at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 5, 2010.
         I don’t know about you but when I hear those words my heart starts to beat more quickly and my excitement begins to build. A ringmaster wearing a top hat and tails and wonderful leather boots takes his place in the center ring – the brass band plays a fanfare. The circus is about to begin!
         The task of the ringmaster is more than simply announcing the acts that are soon to come before us. It’s his job to build anticipation so that we put away all our cares and worries and look to the future. Something magnificent is about to happen. And within moments we begin to experience a world we didn’t believe could exist: animals jump through hoops, acrobats walk on the air above us, people are shot out of cannons and yet, they live! And in the midst of all these wonderfully talented people, the clowns fall flat on their faces and we laugh. It’s a sight to behold.
         “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . .’ And John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist . . . then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river . . .”
         The ringmaster/ John the Baptist? The circus/ the Kingdom of God? Strange bedfellows, eh? However, Dr. Loren Mead in his book A Celebration of Life says this:
To the contemporary world of strife, violence, tension, suffering and anxiety, both the circus and the Kingdom of God present a view of a wholly different kind of world. Not a world of business as usual. Not a world of things as they have always been . . . but a world of surprise and delight . . . a world of new possibilities . . . a world that’s unpredictable . . . a world where all participate, where no one’s left out . . . even the fool . . . a world in which the unexpected and the unprecedented can happen . . . a world of celebration of all life . . . a world of laughter as well as tears. A world that celebrates Easter.
         John the Baptist doesn’t come into the world wearing a top hat and leather boots but he’s certainly a dramatic character and especially during the season of Advent he’s like the ringmaster proclaiming the coming of a kingdom and the arrival of a Savior. Jesus enters the center ring after his introduction and suddenly angels appear to shepherds and to Mary in the garden after the resurrection, the dead are raised, the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry are fed, untouchables are touched, even Paul, a persecutor of the Jews, runs away with the circus and describes himself as the least of all the apostles who walks at the end of the parade – no one is left out.
           Once we’ve known the kingdom Jesus brings, things will never be the same again. And you and I are called to play active roles in making the kingdom of God a reality. Not only are we called to repent – to leave the old life of sin and death behind – but to allow the new life of Christ to live in and through us.
                  When my daughter Jessie was three, I took her to the Ringling Bros./Barnum and Baily circus. As the ringmaster came to the center ring, Jessie’s eyes grew wide, “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages (it was almost as if he had called Jessie by name!), welcome to the GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.” And suddenly, high over our heads, there was an avalanche of activities as the acrobats filled the air over the ring and lion-tamers and clowns danced into the three rings. It was a sight to see and I was so entranced by all that was going on that I didn’t keep my eye on my daughter. When I turned around to say something to her I discovered she had left her seat and was walking down the aisle. I caught up with her. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Out there!” she said, pointing to the center ring. I said, “Oh Jess, circuses are only for watching.” And I tried to explain that even if she made it to the center ring, someone would have to turn her away.
         Well, three years later, the tables were turned on me when my old friend Nick Weber, a Jesuit priest, came to town. Nick had created something called the Royal Lichtenstein Three-Quarter Ring Sidewalk Circus and they travelled the country. They were in St. Louis doing a show in the parking lot of a shopping mall. I took Jessie. We stood and watched as Nick, a wonderful clown and mime in whiteface, came to the center ring. He stopped and looked at the audience and then, motioned to Jessie, calling her out of the crowd to join him, and when she did, he had her stand on a pedestal in the center of the ring. And while she stood there with a smile that could be “heard around the world,” he made her a paper flower out of dirty, old newspapers. Jessie was the star of his act.
         Later that afternoon, while near a wishing well at a local shopping mall, Jessie stopped to drop in a penny. When I asked her, “What are you wishing for?” Jessie said, “That Nick would take me away with him to the circus.” And by the time we got home, she had her colored chalk out and was drawing clown faces and beginning to practice juggling. It had taken her three years but she made it to the center ring!
         Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Children of all ages. I don’t know how long it’s taken you. I don’t know what you long for but it’s here for you. The Kingdom of God is at hand. And no one is excluded. No one left out. Every Sunday, when we stand before this altar and the priest says, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and we respond, “And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever. Amen”, we, in the presence of the Holy Spirit manifest a whole new world – an entire way of thinking about our lives and the world around us – we, like the ringmaster of the circus who welcomes the world to the greatest show on earth and John the Baptist in the wilderness, who says, “Jump on in, the water’s fine!” we say, “Hurry on down the aisle to the center ring and find the special place that God has prepared for you since the beginning of time.” Amen.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Barbi Click's sermon from Advent 2 Evensong at St. Paul's, Carondolet

Preached by Christ Church Cathedral parishioner Barbi Click at St. Paul's, Carondolet on Saturday, December 4, 2010. The Gospel text was Luke 7:28-35

“The Pharisees and lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

That phrase leapt out at me.

I can just imagine the confusion the Pharisees and lawyers must have felt. What was Jesus talking about? They were following the letter of the Law – something they had studied all their lives.

Perhaps it impressed me simply because I am in the midst of reading Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s new book, Made for Goodness. For whatever reason, it is an age old quandary – why am I here? What is my purpose?

It is easy to get lost in all the information available – both then and now. The Pharisees thought they were doing what God intended for them to do. Here Jesus was talking about being baptized. What difference did that make to these men of the Law? It is so difficult to wrestle with the idea of what is known and that which is unknown.

In a world where there are so many unknowns, we reject the idea that God created us in goodness, for goodness – the point of the Tutus’ book.

Maybe that idea is just too simple to grasp.

St. Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. But what does that mean? How do we find rest in this rush, rush world? Especially at this time of year? For that matter, how do we find God?

We hunger; we crave…something. This hunger eats away at us daily; causes us to seek and to sate that craving with things that take us so far away from the ideas of goodness and God’s purpose for us.

God blew breath into the first human – ruach – the breath of God.

God made those first humans and said, “It is very good.” Not just Good. Just good was for all the other aspects of creation. For the humans, God said it is VERY good.

We are made by God, for God, in goodness, for goodness.

It’s not that we SHOULD be good…it’s that we ARE good.
God said so. And that lives within us each moment of every day.

Yet even with that, the things that people fear most are alienation, separation…of being cast aside. We want to belong so badly that we seek out those things we that cause us to stray so far away from God’s purpose for us. Our lives are too often centered on trying to belong and … then, conversely, trying to run away. We want to be a part of things but when things get complicated we adopt the ‘fight or flight’ stance. We either join in some sort of fight… or we run away.

Yet if God created us all with the same goodness and if we are all called to love one another, then there has to be an understanding that we need one another
– every last one of us needs every last one of us, the first, the last and the most, the least – regardless of complicated relationships make our lives.
Recently, four of the world’s religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama and our own Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, met at Emory University in Atlanta. One of the leaders, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief Rabbi stated that spiritual happiness is the “greatest source of renewable energy that we have.”

Spiritual Happiness...Greatest source of renewable energy.

As an environmentalist, this is a profound statement to me.

All the leaders agreed that the more we give, the happier we are. My grandmother used to say that the more we give away, the more that comes back to us.

If we do need one another, if that is the way that God created us and if God’s purpose for us is goodness, made in goodness for the sake of goodness, then I think it is safe to assume that the answer to the question of God’s purpose for us is fairly clear.

Do good. Not for ourselves…but for others. Do good.

We reject God’s purpose for us when we put our needs above the needs of others or when we make ourselves the center of things. And it’s easy to make ourselves the center of attention – one way is to take on too much – to be in charge of this or that. To have to control so many things.

We live in an I, Me, Mine culture which promotes the idea that the individual is far more important than the whole…and that we actually have some right that others should cater to our … quirks. It keeps us from seeing very far from our own center point of being – rather than being centered in God, we center ourselves on ourselves. Not very stable. Mainly, it keeps us centered on that which we know.

The unknown scares the living daylights out of us. It scares us into a stubborn ignorance.

That is basically what the Pharisee’s and the lawyers did: John & Jesus, young men, newcomers telling the same story with a very different spin on it. How could they possible know all that these wise, learned men know, these men who had dedicated their lives to study the Law?

But John and Jesus did. They knew God’s purpose for themselves and they knew that it was to do good for others.

Advent is a time of meditation and reflection while awaiting the coming of something so spectacular and phenomenal that it alters our lives forever. It is a time where all creation is reconciling itself to God.

On this 2nd Sunday in Advent, this Scripture reading from Luke calls us into a no uncertain recognition of God’s purpose for us -- reconciliation – with one another, this creation and with God.

When we reconcile ourselves to one another and to this great creation, we reconcile ourselves to God.

The only unknown in this is just to what extent will our lives be transformed.