Saturday, August 27, 2011

Take Off, Take Off Your Shoes

28 August 2011/Proper 17A – Exodus 3:1-15/Romans 12:9-21/Matthew 16:21-28
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
Take Off, Take Off Your Shoes
Moses and the burning bush. Moses is a fugitive on the run. He is tending his father-in-law’s flock. A bush is burning but is not consumed. A voice speaks to him from the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush but the voice says, “Stop and come no closer. Remove your sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses, the fugitive from the law, is then called to lead a mission – to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into new life in a new land. Moses wants to know to whom he is speaking. Wouldn’t we all?

In perhaps the single most iconic moment in the Bible the bush replies, “I am who I am….tell them ‘I am’ has sent me to you.” This is key to understanding the entire New Testament.

Jesus repeatedly says to people, “I am….” “I am the true vine,” “I am the true bread that comes down from heaven,” “I am the way….”

Remembering all this gives this episode with Jesus and Peter make sense. Jesus tells everyone willing to listen that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed and on the third day rise again from the dead. Peter says, in effect, “No way! God forbid! I just identified you as the Christ, God’s anointed one, God’s messiah, and now you are saying this? This must never happen!”

Do we see what happens in that moment? Peter forgets to take off his shoes. Peter forgets he is standing on Holy Ground? For you see, Peter is talking to “I am.”

This is the great scandal of Christianity – Jesus and the voice in the bush are one and the same. This has been a scandal from the very beginning. Peter is not alone. Well meaning Christians, bishops even, are writing books right now saying, “God forbid! This cannot be! Jesus was just a man like you and me. Nothing more, nothing less.”

If those who deny our Lord is Lord of all are right we might as well sleep in on Sunday morning. The only sin greater than idolatry would be the sin of hubris – excessive pride or arrogance. Peter has it. Those abandoning our experience of Jesus as God AND Man have it. The Church often has it. Our nation often has it. And the moment that I identify someone else as having it, I am in danger of having it. That’s just how pervasive and tricky hubris is.

Listening to Naomi Tutu addressing the Opening Convocation at Saint Timothy’s School for Girls on Saturday, her main point was that a good education should help you to see and to learn those things about which you are wrong, but usually feel that you are so right. Like Peter, we really don’t like that. We never want to learn that we are wrong about anything – and that is when hubris gets in our way.

Look at the Church’s history. A long history of Anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, the Crusades, complicity with slavery, racism….the list goes on and on. Our country, arguably the best nation on earth, frequently suffers from the sort hubris that believes that the entire world would be better off if every country and everyone were just like us. Not to mention just how we have utterly ignored the urgings of Saint Paul to leave vengeance to the Lord, to feed our enemies if hungry, and give them something to drink if they are thirsty. Jesus himself urges us to love our enemies. How often do these words appear in our public rhetoric? There are all kinds of assertions that ours is a “Christian” nation. Just where do humility and love of enemies play a role in our nation’s common life? Whether those enemies are on the other side of the world or just on the other side of the aisle?

I believe we are meant to see that the antidote to hubris is taking off our shoes. We are to honor others, not vilify them. We are to remember we are standing on Holy Ground. Shoes are a sign of affluence, bare feet are a sign of humility and solidarity with those Jesus loves, the poor, the disadvantaged, those who are lonely and isolated due to bigotry and discrimination of all kinds.

Taking off our shoes begins with believing that this is God’s world, God’s creation, the earth and everything therein (Psalm 124). It begins with an attitude of gratitude, of thanksgiving for all that this good earth has to provide for us. Taking off our shoes means recognizing that we stand on Holy Ground on this earth, before God and before one another.

Some years ago, at least 60 or more, Woody Guthrie wrote this song – a modern-day psalm, really. Singing it may help to bring us back to an understanding of where we are, which may help us remember who we are and whose we are. Peter, like Moses before him, eventually took off his shoes and listened to the Lord. With any luck we may, like Peter, get back to our rightful places behind Jesus and let him lead us the way to life in its fullest. Or, like Moses, against all odds, strive for justice and peace for all people, leading people out of bondage into freedom – helping the world to be a place where all people are recognized as God’s people.

Holy Ground
Take off, take off your shoes
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
Take off, take off your shoes
The spot you’re standing, its holy ground

These words I heard in my burning bush
This place you’re standing, it’s holy ground
I heard my fiery voice speak to me
This spot you’re standing, it’s holy ground

That spot is holy holy ground
That place you stand it’s holy ground
This place you tread, it’s holy ground
God made this place his holy ground

Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk it’s holy ground
Every spot on earth I trapse around
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Every spot it’s holy ground
Every little inch it’s holy ground
Every grain of dirt it’s holy ground
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Words –Woody Guthrie, copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc 2001

Hear Holy Ground:

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Too Far From The Shore?

August 21, 2011 – Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 16
Year A
By the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
(RCL) Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 (or Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138); Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

It is not that God’s Church has a Mission, but that God’s Mission has a Church.

It is Peter’s day – the day he is renamed by Jesus. No longer Simon, but Peter. Which in the New Testament Greek makes for a kind of pun – for the word for “rock” is petra, while Peter is Petros. Petros is petra – the rock, the foundation upon which Jesus builds his church.

We say “builds” because we know His church is still under construction in so many ways. The church is always growing, changing, under construction, searching for new, more nimble, more creative, more flexible ways of being God’s people. Each time a new member is added to our rolls, each time a person is baptized, we must be prepared to be called to new and different ways to “do all in our power to support one another in our life in Christ.”

A life which Saint Paul asserts is quite different than that of the world around us. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul does not envision a people focused only on our own lives. We are those people who trust that being in the right places at the right times – the places where God promises to be – God will transform. Our hope is not that our resolve will hold, but that God’s resolve will hold.

Consider the book The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittester, of the Order of Saint Benedict. Benedict lived a long time ago – just some 400 years or so after God in Christ walked this earth as Jesus. He tried to get away from the world – a world of Empire marked by power, wealth, violence, aggression. He tried to live in a cave, but others heard of his special gifts in finding a way to live with God so that he was coerced to join and lead a community of like-minded followers of Jesus. Benedict encouraged a disciplined approach to community life, work, study, and prayer. Some thought his methods too difficult and tried to poison his wine. Benedict was onto it, made the sign of the cross over the jug of wine, smashed it on the ground, forgave them for what they had done, and moved on to found a number of monasteries.

Benedict eventually put his ideas about how to know God down on paper, The Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with the words, “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” After just a few moments of reading Benedict’s Rule and Sister Joan’s reflections upon The Rule one feels that she or he had time-traveled back to that cave on the cliffs overlooking Anio to listen to the voice of a fellow traveler whose wisdom draws one closer to a place where God can have at us and transform us.

It is like bird watching – although bird “watching” is something of a misnomer. Watching and looking is not the primary skill necessary for seeing birds; but rather, listening is what leads the eyes to see that solitary magnolia warbler or indigo bunting. Bird watching is an apt metaphor for the spiritual life as Benedict imagines it: listen carefully with the ear of your heart, and God stands ready to show you the way.

Another book offers further insights into a life with God: Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love. It is a book that also has its origins in Italy, and it takes a look at how the architecture of a particular church, Saint Agnes’ Outside the Wall, expresses the very essence of what it means to join with Peter and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It examines every detail of what makes a church, a church – a living expression of God’s will – what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect. Visser explores how the center aisle invites one to understand the Christian faith as a journey, a pilgrim journey from the world outside in to the sanctuary of the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. We move closer and closer to the Tabernacle of the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus, God incarnate.

And she writes of how it is a church, not just a pile of rocks by the side of the road, but a living reminder returning us to those times and places where we met God along the way – those mystical, privileged experiences of the Holy. She is careful to distinguish that a church is not so much meant to induce such moments of epiphany as to acknowledge the experiences its visitors have had. It is a collective memory of such spiritual insights and mystical moments.

And with the obvious signs of the cross, crucifix, and Stations of the Cross, we are reminded that in order to live, we must die to self – choose the transcendent over the immediate present. The call to follow the Christ, the Son of the living God, is a call to look outward toward others and toward God. Only then can we know what it means to be fully alive. It is not that God’s Church has a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. And we are that Church, the Body of Christ.

The church in bricks and stone and wood and glass tells this story and invites all who would be Christians to continue this story, so at the end of the day we are sent away: Ite missa est – “Go, you are sent!” From which we get the word “mass”: to turn our lives toward others and toward God. To complete the work we begin in here, in actual fact we must return to the world beyond our doors. We are to live with other people and love them, just as we are to live with God and be loved by God. God’s Mission has a Church.

In another time and another place, Charles Moody wrote a song, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore” that seems, due to recent events, to be more relevant today than ever:

Out on the perilous deep
Where danger silently creeps
And storms so violently sweep
You're drifting too far from the shore

Drifting too far from the shore
You're drifting too far from the peaceful shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You're drifting too far from the shore

It is all meant – Benedict’s Order, Paul’s Letters, this church, the gospels, Moody’s song – to make us ask ourselves: Are we willing to continue God’s story, be transformed by that story, and so become active participants in God’s transformation of the world in Christ Jesus?

Or have we drifted too far from the shore?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Things Not Always As They Seem

14 August 2011 - Genesis 45:1-15/Ps133/Romans 11:1-2a,29-32/Matthew15:10-28
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Things Not Always As They Seem
For whatever reason, we have frequently and simply misread The Bible. Which would not be so bad if it were not for the fact that our frequent mis-readings have led the Church to doing things we ought not to have done.

Take the Joseph saga, for instance. It is a complex and highly political tale involving a dysfunctional family, palace intrigue, economics, famine and politics. Yet, we have turned it into a technicolor musical starring Donny Osmond making Joseph look like such a great guy. True, after being sold into slavery by his brothers he worked his way up to being "lord of all Egypt," perhaps the equivalent of Secretary of State and Interior all rolled into one on behalf of Pharaoh. And in the little snippet of Genesis we get today, he believes God put him there to preserve his family as a faithful remnant of God's covenant people, Israel - remembering that his father Jacob's name was changed, by God, to Israel as the name for the entire people descended from great-grandfather Abraham.

The good news is that the people were saved from the famine. The bad news is that their "saving," if we dare call it that, involved a series of credit arrangements and mortgage foreclosures that left them in such hock that all twelve tribes of Israel were forced to become slaves in Egypt for generations to come. That is, through the actions of brother Joseph, they were forced to give up their land, their livestock, and their children. Should be sounding familiar. It is like saying that the Africans brought to this continent were "saved" from any potential drought or famine that might have taken their lives back in their homeland. And as we know all too well, life for slaves is not particularly good, and only got worse once a Pharaoh arose over Egypt "who did not know Joseph." Believe it or not, there were majority voices in the church from the 18th to 20th centuries who would twist this tale to make us believe that God endorsed the institution of slavery.

It got so bad, of course, that the Lord God of Israel had to send another prophet, Moses, to deliver his people to freedom. We sing about his brother Aaron in Psalm 133. Aaron gets pretty good press in Psalm 133, despite his complicity in the Golden Calf incident, but of course that's another story! Nevertheless, Aaron is lifted up as an archetype for those who are anointed by the Lord to be in sacred leadership positions, thus demonstrating early on that those chosen by the Lord are not necessarily qualified, but that the Lord qualifies them to do the work God needs them to do.

The severely edited 11th chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans is perhaps one of the most important reflections on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Had it been read carefully, and taken seriously, the long and tragic history of Christian Anti-Semitism may have been avoided. Instead, we, the Church, paved the way for endless centuries of pogroms, inquisitions, the Shoah (Holocaust), and much of the trouble in the Middle East today.

Early theologians and bishops of the Church ignored Saint Paul's understanding: God has not rejected the Jewish people. "By no means!" Instead, it has been through the grace and mercy of the God of Israel that we Gentiles have been grafted onto the true vine of God's covenant people. Israel maintains, writes Paul, a place of honor and priority in the divine scheme of salvation.
Lest we take such matters in our own hands, Paul warns in verses 33-36 (conveniently omitted!) that only God knows, understands and can adjudicate such matters (quoting Isaiah and Job along the way): "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen."

Then there is the episode with "a Canaanite woman." Ironically, this follows a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over the moral implications of what we do and what we say in which Jesus concludes what we say is far more damaging than omitting certain ritual actions. Parents will be horrified to know that Jesus here justifies not washing one's hands before a meal!

So how odd is it, and frankly how disappointing is it, to witness our Lord's response to a mother desperate to have him save her daughter from torment. She, a Gentile, risks everything by calling him "Lord, Son of David" in the midst of people who reject the Jews. His disciples beg him to send her away. Jesus is harshly dismissive saying his mission is only to "the lost sheep of Israel." The woman persists, on her knees, pleading, "Lord, help me." He then transgresses all boundaries of decent behavior and calls her and her people dogs. Such was the all too human divide between Jews and Gentiles in the first century.

It surprises us to hear Jesus speak this way. We must remember, however, that no matter how divine we know Jesus to be, at this moment he is fully human, like you and like me. Why are we surprised? Don't we say such things about others nearly every day? Aren't the airwaves of radio and television clogged with such epithets, bigotry and worse every hour? Has there not been an overall coarsening of our public and political conversation that is just as bad or worse than this every single day?

The woman, however, has the last word. Even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master's table. She is willing to settle for crumbs. She does not mean to detract from the main meal. She does not ask for a whole loaf. She knows that a few crumbs will be enough to make her daughter's life whole again.

This is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all the four gospels. Why? Because she changed Jesus’ mind. Jesus was moved to a new place. He let her in. He forgot about tradition for a moment and opened the door and gave her a place at the table. Suddenly he could see only her love for her daughter and the daughter’s need. He could not allow the law or the tradition to get in the way of love and need. He saw her faith. The daughter was healed. But so was Jesus. Jesus was healed of slavery to a tradition, of bigotry and of blindness to the needs of all people.

Jesus learns and changes! We are given a picture of Jesus who learns things and changes for the better. Willing to learn from a Gentile. A Gentile woman no less! A dog! His actions at the end line up with his teaching at the beginning of the chapter. The Buddah, some six hundred years before Jesus said, "All things change. Nothing stays the same." Like Jesus we can all learn and change for the better.

Then there is the woman. The woman stands in for all Gentiles. We can learn from her faith. We can get down on our knees and pray. We can learn to settle for crumbs. But we can also learn from her humble and honest acceptance of Israel's priority in the divine scheme of salvation as set out by Paul in the eleventh chapter of his Letter to the Romans. Remember her. She may be the single most important person in human history. We cannot all be like Jesus, but we can all be like her, a humble Canaanite woman, mother and woman of faith who says, "Lord, help me." Amen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

We Can't Make It Here Anymore!

7 August 2011
Feast of the Transfiguration
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a – Luke 9:28-36
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek


I wish I did not have to preach this sermon. But as Jeremiah says, it is like a fire shut up in my bones. Webster’s Dictionary tells us transfiguration means:
n. 1.Radical transformation of figure or appearance: metamorphosis. 2. The sudden emanation of radiance from Jesus’ person that occurred on the mountain.

August 6 – The Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ – The Anniversary of our United States dropping an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Both events, curiously, revolve around images of blinding white light, clouds, and feelings of dread and fear - two events evoking radical transformation.

From our perspective, looking back 66 years it is possible for us to recognize the various ways in which such radical transformation took place in Japan: an entire modern city was reduced to dust and ash in the blink of an eye; people who populated that city were instantly incinerated, or dramatically and radically changed in appearance; the spirit of the human community was radically transformed; the nature of modern warfare was restructured; whole generations of people lived under a new specter of fear, fear of a mushroom shaped cloud.

On the positive side, a devastating World War was brought to an end; out of a deep human desire for world peace the United Nations was born; many people abandoned a view of security based in military might for a view of security based in peaceful co-existence; and the Right Reverend Bennett Sims, recently deceased Bishop of Atlanta and former rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, developed a theology of Servanthood. This theology might be summed up by saying that our future depends on how we take care of the Earth and how we take care of one another – all others.

You see, Bishop Sims visited Nagasaki eleven weeks after our military instantly incinerated 39,000 civilian non-combatants, a death toll that eventually reached 64,000 in Nagasaki alone, 250,000 altogether in both cities - what we sometimes refer to as “collateral damage.” We might compare this quarter of a million civilian non-combatant deaths with the only two civilian casualties wrought from the carnage at Gettysburg. After viewing the nuclear wasteland, Bishop Sims was returning to his naval destroyer by way of coal-fired steam train across Japan. A young man of fifteen was the conductor, cheerfully roaming the aisle, punching tickets in his badly worn and patched conductors jacket and cap. He sat down opposite Bennett and in sign language asked for a cigarette. Bennett offered up one of his Old Golds. Then the lad gestured for a light. Writes Sims,

“The act of lighting another’s cigarette, with wind blowing through the open windows of a moving train, brings people’s faces very close. His eyes and mine met only scant inches apart. Unbidden in that moment tears welled up, for both of us. Until a few minutes before we were total strangers. Until a few weeks before, we were sworn enemies, separated by war, propaganda, language differences, and distant geography. But in one swift removal of all barriers, two human beings drew close in a meeting of souls. On August 14th of that fateful year the war ended.
Better still, on October 25th peace came to two of us.” Servanthood (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA:1997), p.170.

From this experience, Bennett Sims drew several conclusions that would shape his life and ministry until his death two weeks ago: 1) humanity is created to be a community of kinship in peace, 2) the best things in life come by surprise, 3) the planet will support the human enterprise only as the human enterprise supports the planet, and 4) new life arises from the death of the old. “The human odyssey cannot continue without a quantum advance in consciousness that will build new structures of care for the earth and for one another across all boundaries.” Ibid, p.168

Bishop Sims’ life was a life of prophetic ministry, grounded in such Biblical characters as Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and of course in our scripture today, Nathan. Nathan confronting David with the tragic truth of his transgression with Bathsheba, and writing the order taking her husband Uriah to his death on the field of battle, gives us a glimpse of the very origins of the crucial idea of separation of church and state. God’s independent prophet, heeded by the monarch of temporal power and authority, sets a pattern for the delicate balance between earthly and heavenly powers that has challenged and bedeviled nations for all of the 3,000 years that have passed since Nathan says, “You are the man!”

David has attempted to cover-up his sinful behavior with a military diversion and solution. It has been suggested that Israel’s demand for a monarchy came in part to provide leadership for national security against a Philistine threat. It has been further suggested that this was really a cover for those who had monopolized wealth and who wanted a strong central government in order to protect and legitimate their considerable economic and political advantage and privilege, so that the Philistine threat was really offered as an external cover story to pursue this internal consolidation of power. Even a casual reading of history reveals that this is not the last time the “Philistine threat” has been used to warrant internal political manipulation. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, Philadelphia:1997) p.601.

How that may or may not relate to current events at home and abroad is for others to decide. It is interesting for us to note, however, that God feels it is necessary to provide checks and balances on the monarchy/temporal authority through the person of Nathan and others like Nathan who are called upon to reveal and speak Truth to Power in every generation. We might also note how Nathan cleverly appeals to David’s best qualities leading David to convict himself. And we might finally note that David accepts public responsibility for the wrong he has done, so utterly unlike any single similar situation in recent U.S. and World history.

One might strain to identify who the Nathans are in any given generation, but we can rely upon the truth and promise of such narratives that God does provide us with one Nathan after another. It is our job to hear them, listen to them and act accordingly. Their voices may come from the church, the synagogue or the mosque. Their voices may be found on opinion and editorial pages. Their voices may be on the front page quoting “unnamed sources”: how else would we ever know of what goes on in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Libya, Syria, Goldman Sachs and elsewhere. And since most of the Biblical prophets wrote in Hebrew poetry, modern day Nathans often come in the form of poets and song writers like these:

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore
Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore…Music and lyrics © 2004 by James McMurtry

Men of anger, men of war
My heart is filled with love
Tell me what you are fighting for
My heart is filled with love
The death I see won’t make me numb
My heart is filled with love
Every boy a mother’s son
My heart is filled with love
Raise your voices, spread the news…
Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew…
They all teach the golden rule…
Do unto others as you’d have them do….(Joyce Anderson, Joyscream Music ASCAP)

God knows that without Nathans in every generation we would be blind to the machinations of the David’s in this world. Yet, it is safe to assume that in that moment of realization as David utters the words, “I have sinned against the Lord,” that he too is radically transformed or transfigured, and thereby utterly different from most of his successors. His life from that moment is changed and influenced by such transfiguration. Just as Bennett Sims and the young Japanese man on the train were transformed and transfigured in the blink of an eye. Just as Peter, James and John were transfigured before Jesus on the mountain top, their lives changed forever.

On the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration I believe we are meant to stop everything we are doing and reflect on such questions as: What will it take to transfigure our church? Our nation? The World? Do we as a people have the courage to utter the words, “I am the man,”? “We are the nation,”? Where do the cycles of violence end? In what can National Security truly be based? Are we open to listening to the Nathans speaking Truth to Power?

On another mountain top, on another day, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Bennett Sims concludes that the Transfiguration of Christ and the World is based in a kind of servanthood in which “great power functions as an exchange of power, never as coercion by superior forces. The universe is built this way. As the revealer of the Power that blew the cosmos into being and keeps it evolving, Jesus never coerces. Instead, it is his concise insistence by word and deed that greatness lies in giving – that superiority is embodied in serving. Persuasion is the posture of God.” Ibid, p. 173

The history of the past few generations on Earth has given us ample images of Transfiguration, both tragic and good. Jesus stands up on the mountain issuing the invitation to be transfigured for the good of the world into his servant people – to care for our planet and one another across all boundaries. To recall the last verse of one still sadly relevant song, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn….” (Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson – Fall River Music, Inc.) Amen.