Saturday, November 29, 2008

Where Are You?

November 30, 2008/Advent 1B * Isaiah 64:1-9/Mark 13:24-37
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Where Are You?
The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written after the year 70 ce – that is after Rome destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple and pretty much all that matters. Isaiah chapter 64 is written after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (586bce), the Temple and pretty much all that matters. And both periods marked a time when the land – think agricultural farm land – was under foreign occupation and control – that is by people who did not know how to farm it.

Consider the reality that Jerusalem and the Temple were not just the center of Israelite religion and Israel’s capitol city. Jerusalem and the Temple were the Economic Center of all Israel. So as those to whom Isaiah writes who are returning from exile to see the land in ruins, and those to whom Mark writes are seeing the same destruction all over again, it is difficult for us to imagine just what this might represent in modern terms.

It would be, however, on a scale of the Stock Market not simply losing value, but all of Wall Street and New York City lying in rubble on the ground, while Washington D.C. also lies in ruins. Also imagine all useable farm land rendered at least temporarily useless since it has been exploited and not at all cared for by the foreign occupying forces.

So followers of Jesus want to know who will put Humpty Dumpty back together again and when? While those in Isaiah’s time are still stuck in trying to assign blame, going so far as to suggest that God’s absence – “…because you hid yourself we transgressed…” – is not only to blame for the Exile and Destruction, but that God’s absence is also to blame for their sins! Perhaps giving birth to the very notion of chutzpah!

And isn’t it fascinating that both Isaiah and Jesus, over 500 years later, respond by observing a change in the seasons. I see leaves fallen off the trees as work to be done – raking, chopping, moving, clearing. Isaiah sees a faded leaf blowing in the wind and sees the truth of the situation – our iniquities, our sins, our evil ways, our greed, our wickedness, our injustice, our poor stewardship of the earth and everyone and everything therein “take us away.” What our behavior takes us away from is God and God’s way.

Perhaps God is not hiding from us after all. It is more likely that we are hiding from God. Is this not an echo of the story of the first two people in the garden? The minute they sinned, they hid from God, as if that were somehow possible. God, walking in the cool of the evening, came into the garden and called out, “Where are you?” Instead of blaming me for your poor stewardship of the good earth I gave to you and all the resulting predicaments, where are you? It’s a pivotal question for all of us really.

Jesus makes a similar observation with the fig tree – those who are paying attention will know when it is time for a new season, new growth, new life. And then can we hear him virtually shouting the conclusion of his little story about the man on a journey coming home: KEEP AWAKE!!! Which five hundred years later is surely another echo of God’s plaintive and heartfelt cry, “Where are you?”

I had a Yoga teacher, Sally Rich, who would periodically throughout each class ask us, “Where is your mind?” This, I believe, is pretty much all God really cares about – where are we, and where are our minds? It is a matter of what some call mindfulness, awareness, even consciousness. What are we thinking? What are we doing?

So God is not hiding from us. We are hiding from God. It is more likely that we have ceased to be those people who are attentive and waiting for God. Often we no longer allow ourselves to be the clay in the hands of God the potter. We no longer allow ourselves to yield to God’s shaping and molding us.

Do we even see ourselves as the “work of God’s hands?” Or, do we think of ourselves as self-made, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps sorts of people? Do we strive to be, as we say, “self-made”? Maybe we don’t see God at work around us because we are not looking, have no time to look; because we are too busy Wanting, Having and Doing to take time out to be with God and to wait for God and be ready for God to arrive. Are we too busy to see God in our midst?

Years ago, my Aunt Virginia sent me this box – it’s from Austria where her two brothers, my father and uncle respectively, served in WWII. In it is a leaf, preserved now for several decades – perhaps like the leaf that inspired Isaiah. A few years after she sent this to me, I was walking up a stream-bed with an artist friend, Gerald Hardy. He had removed the silt one bucket at a time to re-store a babbling, bubbling brook in his backyard where before there had just been a trickle. As we made our way along, he stopped, pointed to a leaf such as this one, but wet and sticking to a rock in the stream-bed. The sunlight glistened off of it. “See this….it wasn’t here yesterday, and probably won’t be here tomorrow. We can only see this right now.”

The urgency of Advent, the Christian New Year, means to convey much the same truth. We can, like the ancient Israelites, put off waiting upon God now, distracting ourselves with all sorts of things like assigning blame for current crises like the economy, the war, the health care system, failed banks, failed relationships, failed friendships, failure all around! We can turn our attention to the endless Wanting, Having and Doing of the Christmas shopping season to try to fill the emptiness that lies at the belly of our souls with stuff – lots and lots of stuff. We can attempt to make something of ourselves, by ourselves, to prove what? That we can do things on our own? That we are rugged individuals who depend on no one else? We can stand around and speculate, like those with Jesus, as to just what day and what hour God might make another spectacular intervention like the Exodus, the escape from Exile, or the Resurrection, as if those mighty acts of God were not enough to get our attention, jump-start us and get us back on track.

Or, we can turn our hearts to God – or better yet, turn our hearts over to God. We can let ourselves become clay in God’s hands.

This is where the ancient Christian tradition and discipline of Contemplative or Centering Prayer means to put us – back in God’s hands. It is our way of saying to God on a regular basis, Here I am, Lord. It is a kind of Sabbath time – a time to do nothing but sit quietly with God. It is a place where we might discover that God is always willing, like the wind, to blow all our iniquities away so we might begin again. It is a place to discover that the branch of the fig tree is tender and that new growth and new life lies just around the corner. Contemplative prayer means to put us in touch with the one who placed us here.

Advent is a time for placing ourselves in God’s hands – a time to gather ourselves up into meditation and contemplation of the mighty acts God has done throughout history. We have here and now only a moment for this. But that is enough – even if our time of Contemplative prayer is almost immediately overwhelmed by all the other busyness and details of the season. It is enough, because once we learn to go to that deep still place where God is waiting for us, we always will know the way back. From the beginning of time God has been calling, Where are you? Imagine just how pleasing it is for God when we take the time to reply, “Here I am, Lord – shape me in your hands - in your Way.” Amen.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Economics 101

16 November 2008 * Matthew 25:14-30
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Sabbath Economics

Prologue: “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet, to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.
“To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is to not to have, but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of the things of space, becomes our sole concern.” Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel (Shambala, Boston:2003) p.ix

All of a sudden we are all hearing all sorts of lessons and theories of Economics. Experts abound. Those of us old enough may recall such moments in modern economic theory as E.F. Shumacher’s Small Is Beautiful and President George Herbert Walker Bush’s declarations about the Voodoo Economics of his then adversary. And we hear about such things as macro and micro economics, supply side and free market economics, Keynesian economics and the like. Economics very well may be a far more mysterious discipline and field of study than Theology!

But rarely do we hear much about Biblical Economics, or what some might call Sabbath Economics. We pray that “all holy Scriptures” are written for our learning – and we need to “read, mark and inwardly digest” ALL holy scripture to begin to understand any small section of the Bible.

There are three cornerstone principals of Sabbath Economics outlined in Manna Season way back in Genesis on the left hand side of the Bible: 1)Everyone is to have enough, 2) No one is to store up or accumulate more than enough, and 3)On the Sabbath there will be none. The Sabbath is not a religious regulation, but an economic practice that is an alternative to life in Egypt which was an economy based on ruthless policies of surplus-extraction and militarism. The Bible’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel - and anyone else who is reading, marking and inwardly digesting this stuff – about our dependence upon the land as a gift to share, not as a possession to exploit.

Enter our Parable of the Talents as it is called. It ought to be called the Parable of the Hero of Sabbath Economics. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as Sabbath or Biblical Economics. Like everyone else in the world, God has an economic plan. And to understand this Parable we need to know that. Or else, as we learned at Vestry on Monday evening, this looks like a bad news story rather than a good news story. Who would want to serve a God as mercy-less and rapacious as the Master in the story? Obviously something is amiss in our understanding of this tale that has too often been made out to be an affirmation of modern day investment strategies at worse, or a tame affirmation that we all have “certain talents” at best.

Make no mistake, this is about money, and lots of it. A Talent weighed between 57 and 74 pounds of silver! Equal to 6,000 denarii – the average days wage for a day laborer – it represents more than 15 years wages –which some have said the amount given the slaves for investment is worth approximately two and a half million of our dollars. We are talking serious day-trading and venture capital here! Not the fact that someone might be an expert at needlepoint or macramé.

In traditional Mediterranean society, stability, not self-advancement, is the ideal. Earning anything more than 12% was and is considered rapacious. Anyone trying to accumulate inordinate wealth is understood to be dishonorable since it is always the result of extorting and defrauding other members of the community through trading, tax collecting and money lending.

Further, the primary instrument of investment is land or property. Large landowners, like the master in our story, made loans to peasants based on crop production. With high interest rates, lean years, draught and famine, these tenant farmers unable to make their payments faced foreclosure. The cycle of poverty begins when a family falls into debt, deepened when forced to sell its land to service the debt (anyone hearing the words “home equity lines”), and concludes when all they could sell is their labor thus becoming bond-slaves. Remember, this is how we became slaves in Egypt to begin with, through a series of credit arrangements and mortgage foreclosures – a quick review and digestion of Genesis chapter 47 details this regression into poverty and slavery.

Those listening to Jesus tell this story recognize all too quickly who the bad guys are and who the lone good guy is because this is the story of their lives. The bad guys are praised by the master for having foreclosed enough mortgages to double his earnings, land holdings and bond-slaves. The good guy is the one who mounts a non-violent protest and refuses to defraud his fellow peasants by burying the talent in the ground.

This becomes a kind of peasant insider joke, which we who are so far distanced from the land and how our food is really produced have no chance of getting. Those who work the land know that all true wealth comes from God, the source of rain, sunshine, seed and soil. This silver talent when sown can produce no fruit – reminiscent of the money cast as religion – idols – which also have no power to produce good. The Talent, like idols, is bad seed.

Here is a clash of economic world-views: the traditional agrarian stability model of enough for everyone “use-value”, and the elite’s currency-based system of accumulation and “exchange-value.”

One needs to recall that at the end of last Sunday’s parable about the bridesmaids we were cautioned to “stay awake” so as not to be caught unawares by the upcoming moment of truth in this story. Those listening no doubt “get it” because they have a firm grasp of the Bible’s teaching of Sabbath Economics. So what do we make of our activist hero being cast into the “outer darkness?”

We presume this to be hell, and perhaps it is hell – hell on earth where those who are marginalized by the dominant, elite economic culture end up living in the shadows, on the mean streets, in the outcast territories between towns, beyond the lights of the big cities and great households – life lived with the poor. To grasp our hero-slave’s banishment we must turn to next Sunday’s, and Matthew’s, next parable – The Last Judgment (MT 25: 31-46) where we learn that those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners and welcome strangers are where one is most likely to meet Christ. That is, the whistleblower’s punishment kicks him out of the rich man’s system but closer to the true Lord who dwells among the poor. It is the same Lord who teaches us to pray for daily bread (manna), and to forgive debts (n.b., sin and debt are the same word in Jesus’ native Aramaic) – that is, Jesus teaches us to pray for a return to Sabbath Economics.

As we heard last Sunday, what we call The Lord’s Prayer is really, says Bishop Sutton, The Disciples’ Prayer – a prayer for Sabbath Economics. Can we read, mark and inwardly digest this story seriously enough to “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” Jesus offers in this challenging and clever critique of all systems of economics which compete with Sabbath Economics? It is difficult to imagine any more important time to do so than now! Amen.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sacred Knitting

All Saints 2008 * Revelation 7:9-17/1 John 3:1-3/Matthew 5:1-12
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

“Beloved, we are God’s children now!”

Think of someone you know knitting. Sitting in a comfortable chair, needles in hand, a skein of yarn on the floor, skillfully taking a single strand of yarn or thread and transforming it into a pair of socks, a sweater, a comforter, a scarf, a cap – generally speaking things that keep us warm and snug. This person knitting is usually a woman. I remember my Grandma Cooper knitting me a sweater when I went away to college in New England!

Our collect for today, and a number of places in Scripture, says that God is like this: “Almighty God, you have knit together your elect into one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Jesus Christ….” Psalm 139 says, “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Paul in Colossians chapter 2 writes, “…that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ…” And again Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 4, “…from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”

I love to think about God knitting! Sitting there, needles going full tilt, knitting us, knitting us together into her community, her fellowship, the mystical body of God’s own son, upbuilding us with love, encouraging our hearts, filling us with the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ!

What I hear in this metaphor of God as cosmic knitter is that in creating us and creating the community of God’s own people in Christ, there is one strand, on thread if you will, connecting us all one to another and all to God in Christ. It is the Holy Spirit, God’s spirit, God’s breath, God’s wind that is the common thread. One common thread knit into the very fabric of God’s kingdom on earth.

We inspire – literally breathe in - this Spirit with each breath we take! By the inspiration of this Holy Spirit the thoughts of our hearts are cleansed! And we are made One Body, One Spirit committed in our hearts to One Lord of All – not some, not most, not many, but the Lord of All.

God in Christ, however, uses water instead of knitting needles to do much of her knitting us together into one communion and fellowship. Water. It is the water of creation over which the Spirit/Breath/Wind of God hovered in Creation. It is the water of the Red Sea which God’s Sprit/Breath/Wind drove aside so the Hebrew children could scamper their way from slavery to freedom. It is the water of the Jordan River in which Jesus received the baptism of John and was visited by the Holy Spirit and a voice proclaiming, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God says these very words to each of us when we are baptized.

It is the very same water in which All the Saints we remember this day were baptized. This water shaped their lives in such a way that they did astonishing deeds to further establish God’s kingdom in our midst.

On pages 19-30 you can find some of their names. Every Tuesday morning we recall their lives one by one. Since 1979 we have added about two or three names every three years so that the list has grown.

We need to remember, not one of them ever set out to be saints. It has only been in retrospect that we call them that. As we sing, they were baptized just like you and me, and like Nolan and Benjamin will be this morning. Some, like James Hannington and his companions, gave their lives attempting to bring the love of Christ to others. Some were amazing teachers, some abandoned a life of riches and nursed the sick and tended to the poor. They have names like Lawrence, Hilda, Margaret, and Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky! They all bathed in the water in this font, God’s Holy Water, and so were knit together into the fabric of the life of God’s kingdom on earth.

Once upon a time, about 25 years ago, I baptized a little girl named Eleanor. She was about four or five years old. After her baptism we were back at her family’s home having brunch when I felt a tug on my pants leg. It was Eleanor. I asked, “What is it, Eleanor?” “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” she asked. Meaning, of course, the cross traced with oil blessed by our bishop, sealing her as Christ’s own forever. Also a sign of the promises she made to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace for all people. Not most people, some people, or a lot of people, but all people. And I said, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead.”

This morning, on a mountain top near the Sea of Galilee Jesus says, “You are blessed.” We are blessed if we are hungry, if we are thirsty, if we are peacemakers. By water and the Holy Spirit, we have been knit together with all those who have gone before us, and all who will come after us into the mystical body of those people who are peacemakers in the name of Jesus Christ. There is one thread holding us all together and it is the thread of Christ that connects us to God the Father. It is the thread of the Holy Spirit that says with the First Letter of John, “Beloved, we are God’s children, now!”

In a moment we will all promise that all that we say and all that we do will proclaim the Good News that God is at work in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to herself as she knits away day after day, night after night, knitting us together into one communion and fellowship! When we put on the garment God is knitting for us, people will see the cross on our foreheads and know who we are and whose we are.

And a world that is hungering for righteousness, a world that mourns, a world that seeks comfort and love and care, a world that seeks mercy shall obtain mercy and shall be satisfied because the things we do this day makes us blessed. The blessing we are given is a blessing that is meant for the whole world and everyone therein – it is meant to usher in a world of justice and peace for all people – not some people, not lots of people, but all people. Let us be glad and thank God for making us her Beloved children, Now. Amen.