Wednesday, February 5, 2014

TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE

Looking back over the last several weeks, I see a common thread in my sermons that amounts to a theme along the lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. Unfortunately, I cannot be in one congregation for a sermon series, developing the theme more than can be done in just a few minutes. So I am pulling those sermons together into this essay. Starting with Christmas 2 (the Wise Men) and proceeding through the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple:

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After we celebrate the miracle and the mystery of the Incarnation,
         we pause to remember what the Incarnation means,
         and to consider the difference it makes for how we live each day.
The wise men are examples of how to live
         in a world where God has become human.
They are pictures of how we keep two of the vows
in our Baptismal Covenant.
Today we look especially at those two promises:
         First, “to seek and serve Christ in all people.”
         Second, “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
When God takes on human nature,
it changes how we think of other humans.
It changes how we look at each other
         and how we treat each other.

Today’s opening Collect sets out the theme of our lessons.
“O God who wonderfully created
         and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human kind.”

The wise men didn’t just kneel before the divinity of Jesus.
They knelt before his humanity,
         because God made humanity holy.
Bishop Tutu says that if we really believed
what the Bible teaches about human nature,
         we would genuflect before each other as we do
                  before the Blessed Sacrament.
The wise men showed us how to respond to Jesus.
The Baptismal Covenant tells us where we find him – in each other.
We “seek and serve Christ in all people and respect the dignity
         of every human being.”

The wise men’s bringing gifts to the stable
         shows how we are to treat each other,
         honoring the dignity of humankind,
         which God created in the beginning
                  and more wonderfully restored in the Incarnation.

But what would that look like?
The wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh
to honor Christ in the stable of Bethlehem.
How shall we honor the Christ in the stables of each other’s lives?

Donna Hicks mediates conflicts around the world.
She has worked with insurrections in Latin America,
         civil wars in Africa, and religious strife in Ireland.
In her book, Dignity, Hicks says that
wherever conflict rages in the world,
         if you scratch the surface you’ll find a dignity violation.
Somebody has felt disrespected.
From wars between nations to fights in the family,
         most of our conflicts boil down to dignity.

Hicks says that respect can be different for people
who have done something to earn our respect.
It can depend on what someone has done.
But dignity belongs to who someone is.
Dignity goes with the turf of being human.
The baby in the Bethlehem stable hadn’t done a thing.
The wise men paid him homage for who he was.
Respecting someone’s dignity isn’t about his or her resume.
It’s about their humanity.
Christians vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
But how? I am still looking for concrete actions.

Just as the wise men brought three gifts to the stable,
         Hicks says there are 10 gifts we need to give people
                  to respect their human dignity.
She calls them “The 10 Essential Elements of Dignity.”

I’d say her list adds up to a pretty good 10 commandments
         for how we treat each other at home, at work,
         at church, and in the world.
Number 1 is Acceptance.
         Approach people as neither inferior nor superior to you      
Number 2. Inclusion
         Make others feel they belong.
3. Acknowledgement
         Give people your full attention by listening and responding.
         Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves
                  without fear of being negatively judged.
4. Safety
         Put people at ease at two levels:
physically so they feel safe from bodily harm;
and psychologically so they feel safe from being humiliated.
5. Recognition.
         Recognize others for their talents, hard work,
thoughtfulness, and help.
6. Fairness
         Treat people in an evenhanded way according to agreed on rules.
7. Benefit of the Doubt
         Start with the premise that others are acting with integrity
         and good motives.
8. Understanding
         Believe that what others think matters so try to understand
                  their point of view.
9. Independence
         Encourage people to act on their own behalf
         so they can feel in control of their lives.
10. Accountability
         Take responsibility for your actions.
         When you have violated the dignity of another person,
                  apologize.

The rules are perfectly simple.
But putting them into practice is hard.
It takes constant discipline.
It takes attention and effort.
It’s work.

It’s hard work because all of us have had our dignity violated
         at one time or another, probably a lot of times.
Those wounds to our dignity could make us compassionate.
They could make us into guardians of the dignity of others.
But 19 times out of 20 they make us try to build ourselves back up
by taking someone else down.
It would be great to take down the person who disrespected us,        
         but usually we have to find someone else to pick on.
Defensiveness and contempt easily become habits.

I can’t tell you how many marriages I’ve seen start well,
         until one spouse steps on the other’s dignity,
         then the second spouse stomps back, and so on
         until they have done a 20 year tap dance on each other
                  leaving a couple of embittered pancakes before the divorce.

The Church is as fallible as any human organization,
         maybe more so.
But our purpose is to be a model for godly life.
Here, in our church relationships, this is where we practice
the 10 commandments to honor
the 10 Essential Element of Dignity.
If we practice those 10 things here,
         it will change our marriages, our businesses,
                  and even our government.

Our diocesan slogan is: Together we can change the world.
If we church folks seriously put those 10 commandments in practice,
         the world would change.
But we don’t have to do it all at once.
We can take baby steps.
We could change the world this year with one simple practice
-- not an easy practice, but a simple one.
Whenever we hear someone say something that strikes us as wrong,
         instead of saying, “how could you think anything so idiotic?”
         we would say, “Tell me more about that.”
        
With the simple practice of asking curious questions
         instead of vainly trying to argue others into agreement,
         we could break down walls of defensiveness and contempt
         that separate us from godly relationships with one another.
That alone, just that, would be a critical breaking in
of the Kingdom of God into a fallen world.

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Our Gospel lesson is downright peculiar viewed from the angle
            of spirituality and religion today.
It is currently a popular notion that spirituality
            is best done privately, by the individual,
using his or her own critical thinking.
That is a very attractive way to go about spirituality.

I get to figure it out for myself.
Knowing that I am smarter than St. Thomas Aquinas,
            holier than St. Athanasius, and humbler than St. Francis,
            I can devise a better spirituality than Christianity.
I can invent better rituals than the ones practiced by millions
            of lesser people over the millennia.
I can make up better stories than the Bible and craft a better Creed
than the Council of Nicaea.

The most convenient thing about private spirituality
            is that I basically get to make up my own God.
And that is great.

The God I create will not ask for any of my money,
            or even any time I do not already want to give.
The God of my making will not infringe on my political convictions
            with Biblical social morality.
The God I invent will never ask me to take up my cross.
No, the God of my creation will be the shield and sustainer of my ego.

There are a few problems with my private little God.
First, as I say, he works for me because he works for me.
He is the shield and sustainer of my ego.
But all the name brand religions – Judaism, Christianity,
            Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and the rest say
            that my ego is the problem.
My ego is the prison of my soul.
So my private little God is on exactly the wrong side
of the spiritual project
            that should dismantle ego,
not fortify its prison walls.

Second, when I die, the God of my creation dies with me.
In the world of private individual spirituality,
            I am the Alpha and the Omega.
So when I turn the lights out, that’s all she wrote.

Third, the God of my own creation won’t connect me with other people.
Worshiping my own God in my own way in my own place
            at my own time is convenient, but lonely.
St. Augustine said what we all know from experience.
The joy of life is found in human friendship.
We don’t make friends in a private spirituality.

So let’s flash back to 30 A. D.
If anyone had the qualifications to do private spirituality,
            it was Jesus.
But he didn’t do it.
He prayed and studied at synagogue,
            worshiped in the Temple,
            and was baptized by John.
He wasn’t too good for the faith of his ancestors
            or the seekers of his own day.
Jesus didn’t have his Holy Spirit experience off by himself.
He had it in the Jordan River with John.
So John also saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.
When Jesus came up from the water,
John heard the voice of God
When Jesus was baptized, when Jesus had his encounter with God,
            it wasn’t just so he could get himself in the zone.
It was for the sake of others, including John.

The next time John saw Jesus, he didn’t say
            “Master let’s go off and have a private guru and disciple chat.
            Tell me your secrets so I can be a spiritual hot shot too.”
Instead he pointed Jesus out to his friends and said,
            “If you are looking for God, go follow Jesus.”

So they followed  him, and when Jesus asked then, “What do you seek?”
            they said, “Where are you living?”
They just wanted to be where he was.
So he showed them his place and they stayed with him.
One of those disciples, Andrew,
            Immediately brought his brother Peter to Jesus.
They were forming connections.
Jesus shared his experience with John,
            John passed it on to Andrew       
                        then Andrew brought in Peter.
They were all looking for God together.
They weren’t each making up their own God.
They were looking for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
            the God of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel.
They were looking for the God of Moses, Samuel, David, and Isaiah.
Their hope was grounded in promise made to their ancestors.
Nothing private about this.
It’s a group project with the group spread through the centuries.

And Jesus taught them about the Kingdom of God.
He told them where to look for it.
In the 1960s we started privatizing the translation.

We had Jesus saying “The Kingdom of God is within you
(2nd person singular)”
-- meaning look inside yourself to find God.
But actually Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is among you
(2nd person plural).”
The Kingdom of God is in the relational space between you.
It’s about the relationships.

If you are on your way to the altar with your gift to God
            and you remember you are at odds with your brother,
            stop right there and make peace with your brother first.
Forgive. Share. Tell the truth. Give more than is asked.
God on earth resides in human connections.

All of this adds up to three things for us.
First, it makes a difference for how we treat each other
            in the Church.
The other people in Church with are not just fellow consumers
            of the sacraments.
They are the sacraments. They are the body of Christ.
They are the face of Jesus.
If we want God the way we want him, we have to keep him private.
But it we allow the God of Jesus to appear to us,
            he will show up in the curious guise of each other.
Second, if our faith is relational, we have to share it.
Like John the Baptist, we naturally point people toward Jesus.
Like Andrew we go find someone we care about and tell them
            where to find Jesus.
We know where that is. It’s right here.

One of our parishes recently reported that 85% of their newcomers
found their church through their web site.
But we still have churches that don’t have web sites.
That may reduce their chances of meeting a newcomer by 85%.
But it gets worse.
We have churches you can’t find on a GPS,
            churches that aren’t even in a phone book,
            churches with small signs hidden behind shrubbery.

I am very pleased to see St. Christopher’s beginning
            to let Boulder City know you are here.
In one of our congregations a middle school boy
            was listening to a classmate tell him about her unhappiness.
He said to her, “You need Jesus” and he invited her to church.
She’s now a regular at the communion rail.
Maybe you’re not that bold,
            but can you wear a cross?
If you find anything good about this Church,
            could you mention that in a conversation?
We meet God in the connections we make with people.
When we don’t make those connections, we are missing God.
           
The third thing about relational faith is that it calls us to care for people
            who are not like us, people we don’t even know.
Like Deacon Ann Langevin’s project to buy solar lanterns
            for our companion diocese in Kenya
                        so they can have light in rural villages with no electricity.
We have two ways to share the light of Christ.
One is the send people solar lanterns.
The other is to invite someone to church.
Both ways are connecting to people in caring ways,
            looking for Christ in them and with them.

That’s the Christian religion.
It’s often inconvenient.
It costs money – like $9.50 for a solar lantern.
It costs time. It costs attention.
Eventually, it costs us our whole life.
But that’s where the love is. That’s where the joy is.

That’s where we find our hope for all eternity.
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First Corinthians is hands down my favorite Epistle.
Paul is trying to help the Church in Corinth
            work though their human frailty
to become the Body of Christ and carry out his Kingdom Mission.

Paul is teaching the Corinthians how to be the kind of community
            that attracts people to Jesus by showing them
                        who Jesus’ followers become.
Paul wants people to see Christians and say two things:
            “I want to be with them” and “I want to be like them.”
Jesus said, “This is how people will know you are my disciples.
                        By your love for one another.”
St. John said, “Dear friends, let us love one another for love
                                    comes from God. . . .
                        If we  love one another, God lives in us
                                    and his love is perfected in us. . . .
                        God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God. . .
                        Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters
                                    are liars,

            For those who do not love their brothers or sisters
                        whom they have seen
                        cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

200 years later, the Father of Western theology, Tertullian,
            summed up the basic strategy of how to show pagans
                        the beauty of the Christian way. He wrote:
“’See how these Christians love one another,’ the pagans say,
            for they themselves hate one another,
‘and how they are ready to die for teach other,’
for the pagans are ready to kill each other.’”

But to turn to another kind of Scripture,
            in the words of Diana Ross, “Love don’t come easy.”
It didn’t come easy to the saints in Corinth.
The first thing we hear about is the faction
            over some folks being fans of one apostle
            while others were followers of another.

Paul urges them to put aside those divisions. He says,
            “As long as there is jealously and quarrelling among you
                        are you not of the flesh
            and behaving according to human inclinations?”

So stop dividing up according to which apostle you like best.
Then he turns to lawsuits between church members
            and says it is better to be defrauded than to sue a brother.
Then there was the biggest fight of all.
It was about eating food that came from pagan sacrifices.
1st Century Christians were as worked up over what they ate
            as 21st Century Christians are worked up over sex.
Paul says that the ones who eat the meat are right theologically
            but he tells them to abstain anyway
            out of love for those who are offended by it.
And so the letter to the Corinthians proceeds
            petty issue by petty issue, church fight by church fight,
            until he breaks into a spiritual aria to explain his point.
That’s the famous 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians,
            the hymn to love we always read at marriages,
            but it isn’t about marriage.
It’s about being a congregation.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but have not love, I am a nosy gong . . . .
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful
            or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
            endures all things.”

That’s what love means.
God is love. Those who abide in love,
            those who follow the discipline of love
      and it is a discipline because Diana Ross is right                                                                   – love don’t come easy –
those who follow the discipline of love, abide in love,
God lives in them and they live in God.
And when we abide in love
            the 87% of Nevadans with no faith of any kind
            will say, “I want to be with them and I want to be like them.”

Paul never again wrote anything so beautiful as 1st Corinthians.
But I’m sorry to say they didn’t get it.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending
When we get to 2nd Corinthians, things have just gotten worse.
40 years later, decades after Paul was dead and gone,
            the Corinthians were still fighting.
By then, Clement, the bishop of Rome, had taken over Paul’s job
            and was still pleading with them to just get along
            and treat each other in Jesus’ way, not the world’s way.

Corinthians is pretty straight forward,
            but the Epistle to the Romans gets misunderstood
            and misused most of the time.
Actually, it isn’t the theological treatise people think it is.
It’s just like Corinthians, an effort to smooth out a church fight.
In Rome the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians
            were going at it.
It got so bad the Emperor Claudius threw the whole lot     
            of them out of town kit and caboodle.
Paul wrote Romans to try to show them that it is better to be kind
            than to be right.
The Romans may not have gotten it right away.
But I think the point eventually sank in.
Here’s why I think they got it.

Between 165 and 180, a plague swept through
            the urban centers of the Empire,
            killing one-third to one-half of city populations.
The city of Rome was particularly hard hit.
It’s named Galen’s plague after Galen,
the Emperor’s personal physician.
Galen is famous because he figured out
            that people were catching the plague
            from contact with each other.
It was the first discovery of contagion in the Ancient World.

So Galen told everyone who had the wealth and ability
            to get out of town.
Well, that was fine for the people who could do it.
But it left the sick and the dying to their own devices.
It wasn’t pretty, a city of the sick, the dying, and the dead.

And everyone ran away – except the Christians.
The Christians had an odd notion that the love of God,
            that is God’s love living in their own hearts, would protect them.
And if it didn’t, then they’d just die in God’s service and go to heaven.
So the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, prayed with the dying,
            and buried the dead.

The pagans looked on in wonder.
They said, “See how these Christians love one another.
            See how they even love us.”
Christianity remained illegal in the Empire for another century.
But by the end of that century, one third of the Empire
            had converted to Christianity     
                        largely because of the love
            Christians displayed during Galen’s plague.

For us human beings, love don’t come easy.
But you know what G. K. Chesterton said,
            “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting.
            It has been found difficult and not tried.”

Nothing good comes easy.
What is best may be hardest of all.
But the reward is to live in God
            and have God live in us.
The hardest thing is the thing most worth doing.
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When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple,
            they were kick-starting his spiritual journey as a member
                        of a faith community.
When Chrisit is confirmed today,
            she will be taking her place as a member
                        of this faith community.

To join such a body of believers in the year of our Lord 2014
            is a countercultural act.
Most people prefer to figure it out on their own.
Popular spiritual writer, Thomas Moore, has a new book called
            A Religion of One’s Own.
It’s is a do it yourself guide to religion
so we can skip the messy complication
            of human relationships.

I get it. Church is hard because it has people in it.
Last week a seminary professor I know
            shared on Facebook her heartfelt protest against a Church
that was hurting her friend.
She said the way Church people treat other Church people
            is why young adults avoid the church like the plague.
She’s right. The downright cruelest behavior I have ever seen
            has been in church.
A Methodist pastor was saying to me week before last,
            she just couldn’t understand why people do and say things
                        in Church they could never get away with at work.
We check our guns at the doors of bars
            and our manners at the doors of Churches.
 Like the seminary professor, she said,
            it’s no wonder people don’t want to hang out with us.
We aren’t a safe place.

So were Mary and Joseph wrong to expose their son
            to the social perils of organized religion?
Or were the synagogue and temple kinder, gentler places
            than the 21st Century Church?
Well, apparently not.
1st Century Jews were divided up into feuding factions:
            intellectual Pharisees, high church Sadducees, mystical Essenes,
Apocalyptic Survivalists, radical Zealots, penitential ascetics,
                        just to name a few.
And except for the Essenes who were too spiritual
to be seen with ordinary Jews,
they were pretty much all there at the synagogue and temple.
It was just as much of a zoo as the Episcopal Church today.

Even so, Mary and Joseph made Jesus a member
 of that mixed up faith community.
More remarkable still, we have Christi here today
            ready to stand up, take vows, and join this Church.

What is that about?
Why are we still here in the thick of organized religion
            reciting “How lovely is thy dwelling place O Lord of Hosts to me”?
After thousands of years of faith communities
            behaving in  “all too human” ways, we keep doing it.
Maybe we are just gluttons for punishment;
or maybe there is something holy and mysterious at work here.

You could make a good case for the gluttons for punishment theory.
But I’m going to go with answer number two:
something holy and mysterious.
 It’s called the Incarnation.
When God became human in Jesus,
            God showed us that God lives in humanity,
            in the mixed up messy milieu of the human race
                        with all our frailties, foibles, and faults.

My first Christmas as a priest, the congregation drove me to distraction.
I knew how Christmas is supposed to be done.
But they just wouldn’t do it. 
So I called a wiser older veteran pastor and whined
about how my congregation was screwing up Christmas.
He said, “Well, I guess Jesus will just have to be born
                        in a stable again this year.”

And so it is. 
Jesus is always born in a stable. It’s messy.
God shows up in the stable of humanity,
            not in the palace of an idyllic spirituality,
            not in the Southern Living mansion of propriety,
            but in the neurosis, addiction, and just plain orneriness
                        that make us such an untidy lot.
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a net
that was let down into a lake
            and caught all kinds of fish.”
All kinds of fish, including the bottom feeders.
Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted
            his field with good wheat but there were also weeds.
His workers wanted to pull the weeds.
But the farmer said, “No, we’ll wind up pulling up wheat too.
Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.”

So here we are, the Church.
A net with all kinds of fish.
A field with wheat and weeds growing together.
We are a mixed assortment of fruits and nuts.
But that makes a pretty good trail mix.
And this, friends, is where God hangs out.

Three decades ago I rediscovered Christianity so I went back to Church.
I was looking for God – not friends – I didn’t much like people.
I thought Church was just something I’d have
to put up with along the way.
Sometimes it has felt like that.

But the truth is I’ve come to love this motely crew.
They have been the human channel of God’s grace to me
            over and over.
They have been channels of grace by being good to me,
            but just as often by difficult.
Martin Luther said,
“God carves the rotten wood and rides the lame horse.”

We grow here through the slow hard work of relationships,
            including difficult relationships.
This is the crucible where we are changed into the likeness of Christ.
Because the church has people in it,
            we have to deal with them.
We learn patience and forbearance.
We also learn how to set boundaries
so that the personal foibles of some are not allowed
to wreck things for the rest. 

This is where we learn how to tell the truth in love.
We learn how to ask a question out of sincere curiosity
            instead of trying to manipulate someone into our opinion.
We learn the difference between being kind and being nice.
In the Church, we practice a balance of wisdom and compassion.
We cultivate the ability to imagine how things look
            from someone else’s point of view.
We may even learn to trust each other.

500 years ago, St. John of the Cross said,
            “God has ordained that we are sanctified (made holy)
            only through the frail instrumentality of each other.”
We need each other’s strength and courage.
We also need each other faults and foibles.
But the goal is that we change, we all change, we change together.
By hard work, by patience and discipline,
            we transform ourselves into the kind of community
            that attracts people to Jesus instead of chasing them
                        away from him.
Our salvation happens through this process of change.
And it is not our spiritual well being alone that depends on it,
            but the well being of all those lost people
            who will never see the face of Jesus except in us,
            and the only gospel they will ever read is the one they see
                        in how we treat each other.

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