Saturday, May 31, 2014

Be Here Now

Acts 1:1-11Psalm 47 or Psalm 93Ephesians 1:15-23Luke 24:44-53

“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” ask two men dressed in white robes to the disciples staring up into space.

Indeed, why do we stand looking into heaven? And where should we be looking?

Whenever a comet flies by, whenever there is a total or partial eclipse, people in record number are out looking into heaven. Combined with a resurgence of UFO mania, the popularity of “The X-Files,” the Star Wars movies, photos from the space probe Galileo giving us hints of something like frozen chunks of water in space, breathtaking photos from the Hubble telescope viewing the very origins of the universe, people are looking into heaven more and more.

Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix must have been expressing the hopes of millions as they sang, “There must be some way out of here.”

“Here” seems to be an increasingly difficult, hard and lonesome place to be.

Out there must be some other place, any other place, better than this, we think on our bad days.
So it must have seemed to the disciples. Their leader and savior had just taken off, seemingly skyward. The military and political authorities seemed stronger and more dangerous than ever.

As Jesus leaves them, they are pleading with him to restore the Kingdom to Israel.
“It’s not for you to knowwwww … but the Spirit will come to you …”

And then he is gone. And like us, they are standing there looking up, searching the sky, wishing to see a sign that the time would be now. Or soon. Or at least certain to come.

Like Daniel or John the Revelator, they wished to see a dream or a vision. Like us, they would like to know what the plan is.

And like everyone, they would like an end to the loneliness.

To lose someone close is just plain difficult to bear. We all know what that feels like. It seems as if life cannot possibly go on. At least not at all like it had before they left us.

Yet, here, with Jesus, a promise is made. The promise is: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. I send the promise of my father upon you until you are clothed with power from on high. Stay where you are. Stay in the city. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

“Stay where you are. It will come to you. God will come to you. God’s Kingdom will come to you.” This is not the message we want to hear.

We are people who are used to being on the move. We go where we wish, hope and desire. We are urged to go for all the gusto we can get. We are schooled that all you have to do is want it and work for it, and it shall be yours.

But Jesus says: “Stay where you are. Abide. Stop looking up. It will come to you right where you are. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

Does it help us to know that the concept of the Messiah and the Messianic Age or Kingdom was thought by Jesus and his contemporaries to take place right here – not somewhere else, not out there, not up in the sky, not some other time, not some future time, but now?

The Messianic Kingdom will come to us; to those of us who stay here in the city; to those of us who are joyful; to those of us who bless God; to those of us who know and love Jesus, his Kingdom is here and now.

We are not called to look for the Kingdom, to search the heavens for signs of its arrival, but to step into it here and now with all that we are, all that we have, all that we say and all that we do.

To those of us who stay here joyfully blessing God, it will come. Those who participate in this life with an attitude of Thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thank God! He Sends Help!

We come from Love
We return to Love
And Love is all around

All of life is a homecoming
Homecoming, homecoming
All of life is a homecoming
A coming home to God

Let’s review what is going on here in John’s all begins in chapter 13 with the foot washing....well really in chapter 1....which says it begins in the beginning.....and infers it begins before the that is we do not know, cannot know, although we may know one day...

I shall know why - when Time is over -
And I have ceased to wonder why -
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair school room of the sky -
  -emily dickenson

And anguish there is. Chapters 13-17 of John make up what is called the Farewell Discourse - and coincidentally is John’s version of the Last Supper. It is a very odd version to be sure. One seminary classmate called it the Fellini Last Supper. And it begins in anguish: The anguish of his immanent departure, the anguish of his impending state sponsored execution, the anguish of Judas’ betrayal. And yet, Jesus responds assuringly that he had come from God and was returning to God so he could prepare a place for us; that he will return to take us back to the dwelling place of God the Father; that he is the way to the Father; and that the way, his way, looks like Love, God, on his hands and knees washing feet; that we will do the things that Love does and greater things than these! All on just one condition: that we Love one another as He loves us - and he Loves us to the end. 

It is the fourth gospel and the epistles of John that state unequivocally that Jesus is God, God is Love, we are in Christ, so we are a community of Love. That is what we are meant to look like to ourselves and to others. We are to look like the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Love. 

Note how when our hearts are troubled, and we are focused on where he is going and how we will follow, Jesus redirects us to look at ourselves, and to know that belief in him is no ordinary belief - why it isn’t really belief at all as he states it. He says that those who believe will “do the things I do, and greater things than these will you do because I go to the Father.”  Long Pause!

Let that sink in.

To ourselves and to the world about us we ought to look like those people who do the things Jesus did, oh yes, and in our spare time we are to do greater things than these! 

This goes beyond the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming - everyone look busy!” And to contemplate what this means really should take more than just one week of our time together in Eucharist, in Thanksgiving. It should feel like a daunting task, a daunting commissioning, to be expected to do greater things than Jesus. 

So fortunately as chapter 14 continues ( v15-21), Jesus promises to send help. Help is on the way! In fact help is here and has always been here! The advocate, the helper, the Holy Spirit is God, just like Jesus, the Word, the Logos, IS God. We tend to forget that when we talk about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit we are not talking about three separate entities here. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, is God and ever shall be God. So it is with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

So we are not alone. And feeling alone is one of the most universal characteristics of being human. Jesus knows this and takes this human dilemma into account at the Last Supper. Jesus assures us we are not alone - he will be with us eternally in the advocate he sends, the helper, the Holy Spirit - pneuma in the New Testament Greek, ruach appearing 389 time in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew of Genesis which John is obviously calling to mind for us with the words, “In the beginning....” In the beginning God’s ruach,  God’s wind, God’s breath, God’s spirit blew across the face of the waters of chaos and brought life as we know it into being!

So Jesus, after commissioning us to do greater things than he does, reminds us that this spirit, wind, breath of God is with us, has been with us and will always be with us if only we will open ourselves and let it in. To make sure, on the day of Resurrection he breathes on us - just as God’s ruach breathed into a handful of dust and created humankind. That breath, that ruach, is with us and in us from our very beginning!

I remember being on retreat on the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin in a seemingly ancient Victorian mansion. All day long a bishop from Scotland would lead us in prayer invoking the Holy Spirit to come among us. We were on silent retreat. I would go back to my room. It was winter. Waves were freezing on the shoreline. The wind was howling. The double-hung windows, the wooden frames having long ago dried out, were rattling with each fierce bashing of the wind against the building! How funny, I thought! We are on our knees praying for the Holy Spirit all the while it is bashing and rattling these windows trying to get in! I spent much of the rest of the retreat out of doors! The Holy Spirit was there in all its wildest abandon!

Again, I was at a Stewardship conference in Syracuse years ago, leading a workshop. There was a room of about 70 people, including representatives of a deaf congregation right up front where a young man was signing the workshop for them. We paused to sing Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God. The deaf people were signing it. Suddenly it happened. As they were signing the “Alleluias,” everyone in the room began signing the Alleluias along with them . They of course had no idea as they were looking forward and following the young interpreter. He then urged them to turn and see what was happening. The look on their faces when they saw that we had all entered their world  - that was the kingdom come. That was the visible presence of God’s Spirit among us. For a moment in time we all saw the face of God, the face of Love, the Holy Spirit in the faces of our deaf companions. And they were no longer outsiders looking into our world - we had entered their world, if only for a moment it was long enough for us all to look, pause, take it all in and give thanks.

God in Christ asks a lot of us, but he does not leave us on our own - and in fact we have never been alone - the advocate, the helper, the Holy Spirit, YHWH’s all powerful Ruach,  has always been with us, is with us and always will be with us! He loves us, and he loves us to the end! Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God and the door shall be opened to you and you will see the face of God, the face of Love, and live!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Greater Works Than These

Easter 5A - John 14: 1-14
We come from Love
We return to Love
And Love is all around

My friend, colleague and mentor, Pierre Wolfe, taught this to us as a summary of Ignation Spirituality. Pierre used to be a Jesuit priest until he was called to marry a  woman religious, Mary - and Jesuits are the spiritual heirs of Ignatius of Loyola.

This summary might also be called the summary of the theology of the fourth gospel. For John and John’s community, God is Love, Jesus is God, and indeed Jesus spends much of the fourth gospel calling us to become a community of love.

From the get go, chapter one, verse one, it is made clear that Jesus not only comes from God but in fact is God and has been God since the beginning. And throughout John the leitmotif, and particularly in the text before us this morning, is Jesus’ imminent return to God - all of which is linked to the first chapters of Genesis (“In the beginning....”) and our own origins as having come from the God who is Love - and here we learn that not only will we return to Love, but God in Jesus is already preparing a place for us and will return personally to bring us back into the household of Love, home of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This fourteenth chapter is often reduced to the sixth verse (which some of us may recall was the focus of endless bickering in our diocese and throughout the church in the late 80s and early 90s), thereby stripping it out of its greater context which is Jesus’ farewell discourse (chapters 13-17), which coincidentally, or not, is John’s portrayal of the Last Supper. We can assume as such that it has Eucharistic undertones and overtones!

A distinctive feature of John’s Last Supper is absolutely no mention at all of bread or wine, and thereby offers no words of institution as we find first in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence and later the other three gospels. It is chapter 13 of the discourse that gives us the basis for our observance of Maundy Thursday - from the Latin Mandatum from which we get the words mandate and command.

"Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you") John 13: 34-35.

It is this commandment and this Love that lies at the heart of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy, the  Mass and the Great Offering - all the names our Catechism uses to describe this little get together we have every Sunday morning - and now a days often on Saturday evening as well.

John and John alone uses the five chapters of the Last Supper to give us concrete examples of what this Love looks like - Jesus, robed with a towel on his hands and knees washing feet.

My friend Pierre tells me that there are Christians in Europe for whom this ritual is the weekly sacrament - that is week after week they wash one another’s feet. Why? Well for one, it is Biblical. And for another, it serves as a reminder of what may be the most important and often overlooked verse in chapter 14, verse 12: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” Note carefully that faith (belief) is directly connected to works - that is faith is to result in works - faith is known through the works themselves, or however else one needs to scramble the words to see that Jesus is primarily interested in orthopraxy - right behavior - than orthodoxy - right belief.

To that end, Mary Wolfe, the former nun, assumed a new vocation as Warden of a men’s prison in Connecticut. Each Maundy Thursday she and Pierre would walk through the prison and wash the prisoners’ feet. But it was not just a once a year act of service she had in mind.  Mary worked with the guards as well and taught them to help mend the men’s pants which had buttons instead of zippers. Guards and staff would pitch in and sew new buttons on the prisoner’s pants. We are to be those people who not only do the things Jesus does, but greater things than these will we do because he is with the Father.

It is not just Christianity that sets such a high standard for its people. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, goes to great lengths to outline for the Jewish people how God expects God’s people to live in community, including taking care of widows, orphans and resident aliens, forgiving debts every seven years, and a great Jubilee Year canceling of debts every 49 years! And the Quran imagines that Muslim communities will guarantee that every man, woman and child, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, should receive, from the community, adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and health care - sounding a lot like the early Christians in the first few chapters of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.

A friend of mine on Facebook recently posted, “Interesting that the ‘message’ has been revealed in so many texts, but still people refuse to “get” it.”

It may seem cliche, since it was featured in movies like Forrest Gump, but a song by Chet Power, aka Dino Valenti, at one time with probably the least well known San Francisco band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Let’s Get Together, is an adequate summary of much Biblical theology.

Love is but the song we sing,
And fear's the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Know the dove is on the wing
And you need not know why

C'mon people now,
Smile on your brother
Ev'rybody get together
Try and love one another right now

Some will come and some will go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moments sunlight
Fading in the grass

C'mon people now....

If you hear the song I sing,
You will understand
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It's there at your command

C'mon people now...
Try and love one another right now, Right now, Right now!

We come from Love
We return to Love
And Love is all around
As we do the things Jesus does, and greater things than these, we become the love that is all around, all the time for every one, for everything, for the earth and all that is therein. Amen.

► 3:01► 3:01

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Where Are The Good Shepherds?

The Good Shepherd
John 10: 1-15 Acts 2:42-47

It is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year we read from the 10th chapter of John. Often overlooked is the  crucial assertion of Jesus in verse 15, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold….” The church is always haunted by the notion that perhaps one can be of God and not be of the church, but long before there even was a church, Jesus makes clear that all of God’s children, all of God’s sheep, all of God’s critters, are not all of one flock.

This verse may be the most important one for us to reflect upon and embody and make our own: God has other sheep and will and does provide for them as God does and will provide for us. In fact, until we can really embrace that singular notion, it strikes me as impossible for us to claim what is really at the heart of John’s Gospel – that Jesus comes so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Now all of this is not some sort of marketing scheme like the Prayer of Jabez to suggest that if we pray and pray and pray we will get everything we want. Because it turns out that Jesus, and God, and the Holy Spirit all agree that we should in fact learn to live with just what we need. What we want and what we need are two entirely different realms of abundance. Until we get that straight we will read and re-read our first lesson from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and be eternally baffled.

We read in Acts chapter 2, so soon after Pentecost and the outpouring of God’s Spirit of vitality, that the early believers devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. We read that they had all things, not some things, not a lot of things, but ALL things in common. We read that all things would be redistributed to any as had need. They spent much time together and in the Temple. And day by day God added to their numbers.

Why did people flock to this early church community? Just look at them. They shared everything with one another including the most valuable commodity of all, time. “They spent much time together.” Isn’t it amazing!

Two things in this: We say to ourselves, “Things were much simpler back then.” I think not. Consider that if you spent much time with other Christians the good and civilized people of the Roman Empire would hunt you down, lock you up and send you to the lions or gladiators to toy with. Also, anyone who has lived with just five or ten or more people who hold all things in common can tell you that it is no simple matter to sort out people’s needs and share the goods and possessions accordingly. Trust me, I have been there.

Secondly, we need to think of the abundance promised consisting primarily of time shared with others, rather than an abundance of things. As Jesus asserts time and time again, spending all our time on the acquisition, accumulation and consumption of things leaves precious little time for fellowship, relationships and community. The world of acquisition, accumulation and consumption is a lonely life, an isolated life, where one spends a lot of time building and filling barns, and now self-storage lockers, with more and more stuff. There is no time for fellowship, relationships and community in such a scheme.

Those who take the time to enter the sheepfold through Jesus the gate, those who hear him calling them by name, those who desire to follow the good shepherd, come to know two important things:
1)      What God says to you in Jesus is this: you are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived. There are other things that he could have said to us, and most of us are familiar with these because some forms of Christianity relay such messages as: Good News! If you are very very good, God will love you. Or, Good News! If you are very very sorry for not having been very very good, God will love you. Or, God Loves You! Now get back in line before God changes God’s mind! None of these are truly good news. Instead God says, “You are forgiven. I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I am trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.”
2)      The early Christians were convinced that the Spirit has a particular care for the church, supplying the community with all it needs. She does so, however, in a peculiar way. The gifts you need she gives to someone else. The gifts you are given are meant for someone else. The Christian community can live only by the sharing and giving of these gifts. The Church at its best is a community that lives by this kind of sharing, exercising its generosity not only within its own circle, but toward outsiders as well. None of us has any higher claim on God than the claim to God’s willing forgiveness. We are all outsiders, miraculously included within the community of the gospel by God’s call.
(Points 1 & 2 are both from William Countryman’s,
The Good News of Jesus, [Cowley, Boston: 1993] pp. 3-5, 105)

God sent Jesus to help us to “get” all of this. God sent Jesus to deliver this “News.” God sent Jesus to call into community people who want to live this way. People who want to know God’s love and care for them in this way. To a world that apparently still had not “got it,” God sent a later revelation through an illiterate, uneducated (by our standards) camel driver named Muhammad through the revelation of the Quran.

The Quran envisages Muslim/Human society to look much like that described in Acts 2: every man, woman and child in the community, Muslim or non-Muslim, is to be provided adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and full health and medical care. To this end the early Islamic Empire created the first hospitals, the first world library and research centers, modern mathematics and numbering systems, public water purification and delivery systems, and easily available books while European culture was mired in a dark ages of intramural religious warfare.

As pointed out by Pope Francis this week, no shepherds of any fold have done a good job of following through on the vision for human society revealed in Torah, the New Testament, the Quran, the Confucian Analects, The Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-gita, or the Sutras of the Buddha – this, of course, spoken from one of the more conspicuous centers of concentrated wealth on Earth. Were we to spend time with sheep of other folds, and were we to truly share our gifts as God provides and the early Christian and Muslim communities practiced, we might one day realize that we are indeed all outsiders miraculously included within the community of God’s people – that we truly are one people, not many. That simple realization might very well be enough to establish the kind of society God envisages for every man, woman and child. Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hearts On Fire!

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  (Luke 24:13-35)

This story places Jesus walking with two disciples on the road to the town of Emmaus – a village outside of Jerusalem. They have no idea whatsoever that Jesus is with them. Lesson number one: resurrection life looks nothing like “real” life. Or, is resurrection real life?

They are talking about the events of the past few days in Jerusalem. Jesus we can safely assume knows what has happened. Still, he asks them to tell him “what things” they are talking about. They are astonished that this stranger appears to be the only one who does not know, and proceed to tell him the story. Lesson number two: Jesus wants to make sure we know the story and can tell the story.

But when they get to the part of some women claiming that not only is Jesus’s tomb empty but that some angels announced that he is alive, it is clear they see for themselves that the tomb is indeed empty – they went to look to be sure – but harbor some doubts about the women’s story and the angels’ announcement. At this point Jesus, clearly exasperated, says let’s start at the very beginning – so beginning with Moses and the prophets (i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament) he reviews everything that brought them to this point. Lesson number three: to understand Jesus, the New Testament, Resurrection and Life itself, we need to remember the rest of the story.

They get to their home in Emmaus. Jesus is going to continue on, but they invite him in for a bite to eat. At the table Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Four ceremonial actions they had witnessed before at the Feeding of the 5,000, and at the Last Supper. The same four ceremonial actions repeated every Sunday at thousands of tables in thousands of churches week after week, year after year. It is only when he does this that they realize they had been traveling with Jesus all the way home! His work is done there. He vanishes. Then they realize: their hearts were on fire as he spoke to them on the road. Lesson number four: Jesus meets us in the most ordinary of places when we least expect it to set our hearts on fire.

I grew up walking past a former YMCA building on Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois called Emmaus Bible School. I never knew what it was. It had started in Toronto, moved to Oak Park in the1940’s, and in 1984 moved to Dubuque, Iowa where it is now a fully accredited  4-year college. Not only did I not know what it was, I really did not know the story – the origin of its name.

I had no idea that the people who attended classes there on Oak Park Avenue were people whose hearts had been set on fire by this story! I had no idea that people spent hours in that building studying “the rest of the story,” the back-story if you will, so that they might go out into the world and set people’s hearts on fire.  Years would pass by before I ever realized what Emmaus Bible School in Oak Park, Illinois was.

Years later, at a diocesan camp and conference center in Mississippi, where it was 113 degrees in the shade, I heard the following blessing as we had just finished taking, blessing, breaking and sharing bread in the chapel:

May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord’s countenance lift you up and give you peace
May God give you grace not to sell yourself short
Grace to risk something big for something good
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth
And too small for anything but love
May God take our minds and think through them
May God take our lips and speak through them
May God take our hands and work through them
And may God take our hearts and set them on fire!

The Reverend Elizabeth Jones had found it in a drawer in her desk at an Episcopal School. She had come across it by chance – or by Providence. Just as I would one day come to realize what had been happening at 156 North Oak Park Avenue all those years. Whoever had written it surely knew this story of what happened at dinner in Emmaus nearly 2,000 years ago.

What would it take today to set our hearts on fire? Would we be willing to take the time to walk and talk with companions as those on the road to Emmaus had done that afternoon long ago? Are we willing to take the time to know the story and tell the story in our own words? Are we willing to take the time to study and know, really know, the back-story? When we take, bless, break and share bread who do we see? Who is there before us?

Now more than ever the world needs people whose hearts are set on fire for God! For God’s Shalom – God’s Peace which passes all understanding!

The one time YMCA building, one time Emmaus Bible School on Oak Park Avenue is still there. You can see it here:

It evidently has been turned into condominium apartments! I have to wonder – do the words and lessons learned there still echo in the walls and halls? Do the inhabitants every now and then find their hearts strangely set on fire – they know not how or why? Does Jesus appear to them and then vanish as he had that one evening long ago in the village of the same name – Emmaus?

One afternoon, long ago, standing in Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore just a few blocks away down Lake Street, I had a vision, a glimpse of my future, not dissimilar from that experienced by the disciples along the road to Emmaus. Was it inspired in part by all those who had spent years in that building on Oak Park Avenue just minutes away? I’ll never know. But that, of course, is another story! Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed! Alleluia!