Giving Thanks

Due to the nature of parish ministry and the hamster wheel of Sunday services, the sermon prep for Thanksgiving Day, a Major Feast that is supposed to be “regularly observed” in the Episcopal Church, but for which I will not get fussy because I know we don’t “regularly observe” all the Major Feasts here, often gets short shrift.  So, here I am, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, sitting my study in a closed Parish Office, giving on the first real thought to what I might say tomorrow at 10 am.  As I read through the lessons appointed for Thanksgiving, a theme comes quickly to the fore.  It seems that the lectionary folk would have us notice that there is a dichotomy between worry and thankfulness.

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The prophet Joel writes to the people of Israel after an invasion of locusts.  Now, whether this book is really about bugs or about a nation invading their Palestinian homeland, I’ll let the reader decide, but either way, what comes in the wake of either invasion is, most commonly, fear.  The destruction of crops or buildings and the real threat to livelihood and life lead the people of Israel to the point of anxiety and worry.  And what does the prophet Joel say to them?  Well, he says what every person who speaks on behalf of God says to an anxious people, “Do not fear.”

The same holds true of Jesus.  As he looks out upon a crowd of people who are victims of the rat race, he sees the worry in their faces.  First century Jews, most of whom were from families relying on subsistence tradesmen for survival, were always on the verge of economic disaster.  There was a real and present fear of hunger around every corner.  But Jesus, somehow without platitude, but rather real conviction, can look out on faces wrinkled with distress and say, “Don’t worry, God’s got this.”

For 21st century American Christians, living in a Pinterest world, on the day we turn our focus to the perfect Instagram worthy Thanksgiving table, it would behoove us to listen to Joel and to Jesus.  Worry is the antithesis of thanksgiving.  If our lives our lived only wondering where the next things is going to come from, we are never able to live with a spirit of thanksgiving in the moment.  So, I urge you, dear reader, to not worry.  Don’t fret about the right homily, the perfect centerpiece, or the ideal moisture content in your turducken.  Instead, be grateful for the moment, for the relationships, for the food, and for our God who is ever present and the giver of every good gift.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Not one stone left

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my affinity for the late Bishop Mark Dyer’s assertion that every 500 years or so, the Church goes through an extensive rummage sale.  Basically, his thought was that it takes about 500 years for habits to fossilize, for people to begin to look around, wonder why we’re doing what you’re doing, and begin to make changes.  He thought that the 21st century of the Common Era is going to be such an era.  In my work in this area, I’ve focused mostly on the liturgical and theological innovations that need to get pulled out of the attic and sold at rock bottom prices.  Today, that is changing.

As I write this post, I’m sitting in Houston’s Hobby Airport having just finished a three-day conference on racial reconciliation and discipleship in the missionary age.  In a room filled with 40 of some of best young-ish leaders in the Church, we did some of the hard work of naming the Church’s, and our own, complicity in the structures that benefit whiteness, and began to imagine ways of making disciples that weren’t built upon the false construct of Western Hegemony.  As of right now, I have no idea what I am going to do as a result of my time at Camp Allen, but as I read the words of Jesus to his disciples in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I’m pretty sure that we need something stronger than a rummage sale.

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We need to get to a place where not one stone is left upon the other.  See, it isn’t just that America was built upon the backs of slaves, but so too was the American Church.  In my research for my DMin thesis, I was made to read American Jeremiad, which looked at the sermons preached on the ships brining pilgrims to the American Colonies.  Preachers talked of America as the City on a Hill, as God’s plan, as a new Eden.  Meanwhile, in the holds of some of those same ships, slaves were locked in darkness, pulled from their land and forced into labor in the name of that City on a Hill.

The Church’s role in the doctrine of manifest destiny, its slave-owning past, and its unwillingness to look deeply at that history are probably more than enough for us to tear the whole thing down, look carefully at every stone, its origin, its impact, and its future.  Only when we’ve taken full stock of our roll in American’s racist foundations, will we ever be able to move forward into our mission of reconciliation.

I’m grateful for some time to spend in prayer, study, and conversation on weighty matters like racial reconciliation, and I pray that God might use my time at Camp Allen to change my heart and my ministry – to break it down, brick by brick, so that it might be rebuilt in grace and love.

Do you hear what I hear?

 

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One of the unintended consequences of “church on the floor” is the reality that I am now sitting four feet from the first person in the pews.  In our usual arrangement, I’m up half a flight of steps, through the choir, and a good forty or more feet from the pews.  As a result of this new experience, I find myself paying attention to the way in which our people are engaged in worship.  For example, during Deacon Kellie’s sermon yesterday, as her mic cut in and out, people were genuinely engaged in her preaching.  They were paying attention, actively listening, in order to hear the good word that she was offering, the Gospel she was proclaiming.

As much as we’d like to believe that our people are consistently engaged in worship on Sunday morning, the reality is, like it is everywhere else, there are moments in the liturgy when the congregation is somewhere else.  I’m not sure where they are: pondering brunch plans, stressed about money, planning the week ahead, or deep in prayer are all possibilities.  However, I am keenly aware of where our folks are during the reading of the lessons – they are in their bulletin, following along with the text that is set before them, and I’m not 100% convinced that is a good thing.

Our collect for Proper 28 is specifically focused on the role of Scripture in our lives.  (I’ve written a chapter on this collect in “Acts to Action,” which I hope you will read (you can buy at forwardmovement.com (and, full disclosure, for which, I do not receive any compensation))).  It highlights that Scriptures’ primary role in our lives is as a teaching tool, and that the primary way with which we are to engage the Bible is not through our eyes, but through our ears.

There is something unique that happens when we just listen.  Our brains receive the information in a different way than if we are following along, anticipating the next word that is printed before us.  When we listen to the text, we join with the majority of our illiterate siblings in Judeo-Christian history in receiving God’s great love story as it was originally told, out loud, as a tale passed down from one generation to another.  In listening, our imaginations go to work.  We can find ourselves inside the story.  We can hear it in our own unique way.  We may not hear what our neighbors’ hear, but we can hear what God has to say to us in that exact moment.

This Sunday, as we pray the collect for Proper 28, I hope that you’ll join me in putting down your bulletin and just listen.  Listen for the word that God has for you.

Guest Post – The Practice of Love

259a24_cbc7ecea06e44a36b456769c60f922eemv2The Rev. Kellie Mysinger serves as Deacon at Christ Church.  Her sermon today, “The Practice of Love,” was one of the most important sermons that I’ve heard.  Due to some technical issues, the audio in the nave at 10 AM wasn’t great.  With Deacon Kellie’s permission, I’m posting the text of her sermon so that as many people as possible can experience this powerful word.


This week as I prepared for today’s sermon, I thought about the difference between book knowledge and practical knowledge. As someone who has always loved reading, school, and classes of all kinds, I have built up ample book knowledge on a decent number of different topics. Sit me down in front of the television to watch an episode of Jeopardy!, and I can come up with correct responses in a pretty broad range of categories – sometimes even surprising myself when I can pull a word or name or phrase out of my head. What I am much less able to do, however, is to take that hodgepodge of information and actually use it in any practical way. Since I’ve never actually tried out for Jeopardy! and can’t claim any winnings for getting responses right from my couch, all I do with much of the things I know is retain the title that my husband has given me as the “Fount of Useless Information.”

Book knowledge of a subject is knowledge of the principles and ideas of the subject rather than of the way the principles are put into practice. This is knowledge gathered from reading or lectures. When you have this theoretical knowledge of a subject, you can recite the definitions of key terms and concepts and explain how things should relate within a particular system or subject. Practical knowledge, on the other hand, is specific understanding you gain through experience. There are some things that can only be learned through doing. Where theory is often taught in the ideal of a vacuum, the practical is learned through the reality of life. Practical knowledge can often lead to a deeper understanding of a concept through the act of doing or through personal experience, and gaining practical knowledge can be a messy and unpredictable process, as the actual is almost always more complicated than the ideal.

I started thinking about the difference between these two types of knowledge after reading the 12th chapter of Mark, including verses that come before our passage this morning, and listening to a few recent interviews with Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The reading we heard this morning from Mark is a pretty familiar one to most churchgoers, and one that just about everyone would describe as the story of the Widow’s Mite. As I read the passage, I noticed that despite the fact we most commonly associate this story with the widow, most of what Jesus talks about focuses not on the widow, but on the actions of the scribes and the wealthy people who come together in the temple.

Jesus is teaching and sparring with religious leaders about many different topics. Prior to our text this morning, one of the scribes quizzes Jesus about which of the commandments is most important. Jesus replies that the most important command is to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and the second is to love others as much as you love yourself. The scribe says that Jesus has answered correctly and goes on to affirm that nothing at all is more important than these commandments. It seems both Jesus and the scribe agree on the definition of what is most important for believers to do – love God and love  neighbor.

Jump ahead to what Jesus teaches in our reading today. He warns his listeners to beware of the scribes who conspicuously walk around, looking for respect and perks, praying showy prayers, all the while cheating widows out of their houses. Their actions are all about self – their reputations and comfort and power – and they either ignore or take advantage of those who are weak and vulnerable. The scribes, who are the teachers of the Law, whose member just affirmed in his interaction with Jesus the supreme importance of loving God and neighbor over all else, may be well versed in the theoretical knowledge of love but their actions show they have much to learn about the practice of putting this love to work in their everyday lives.

The wealthy who are coming into the temple, contributing large sums into the treasury, are not lauded by Jesus for their actions either. Although the monetary amounts the people are giving may be large and might be used to assist people living in poverty, Jesus points out that for the givers the amounts don’t reflect any particular generosity or special faithfulness. In our text Jesus references their giving out of their abundance, and in other translations, Jesus describes the donations of the rich as “something they’ll never miss” or something they “didn’t need.” Giving away property that doesn’t really cost the giver anything or being willing to offer something that doesn’t require any meaningful sacrifice or effort is not an action to be praised. These gifts might fulfill social or religious obligations, but for Jesus they are not examples of responding to the command to love.

So what does it look like to love God and love neighbor? This is a question posed in different ways to Bishop Michael Curry in several interviews this week as he talked about a book he has written called “The Power of Love.” In one interview, Bishop Curry was asked to describe the kind of love he has written, spoken, and preached about, which is the love that is taught by Jesus. He described this love not as simply sentimental love, but as an “unselfish, selfless way of living that actually seeks the good and well-being of others, even something above our own self interest.” This kind of loving, selfless living is what has the capacity to change things for the good, said Bishop Curry. In another interview, the interviewer tried pressing Bishop Curry for specific examples of what loving action would look like in this or that particular situation, and Bishop Curry kept pointing back to the need to approach every encounter, every opportunity by seeking to act out of that loving concern for the good of other people – in the selfless, sacrificial way that Jesus embodies.

As I listened to Bishop Curry, I found myself frustrated, as I sometimes do when I hear Jesus’ words, because I want more tangible, specific instructions for how exactly I go about loving God and loving my neighbor. I know the book answer, but I am not always confident I know what shape that should take when I’m trying to live each day in response to this call to love. That is where practical experience comes in. At some point, talking about love and reading about God and neighbor needs to turn into practicing this love. And as with any other kind of practical learning, it’s going to be messier and more unpredictable in reality than it is in theory, and to be the love that Jesus teaches, it’s going to require something of us as we struggle to make the needs and the well-being of others our focus and our concern.

Each of us has opportunities every day to practice the love of Jesus. It might be reaching out to family members or friends in crisis. It could be stepping in or speaking up when you notice someone being treated  unfairly. You might be faced with a choice about whether or not to commit your time to working with a group that serves people in need. There may be issues at your workplace, at school, or in the community where you identify problems or crises causing hardship or pain.

Right now, we as a church are in the midst of practicing how to love our neighbors as we work with people experiencing homelessness who have sought shelter on our grounds. This is a messy process, both literally and figuratively, as we work to build mutual relationships with people who are struggling and vulnerable, and as we try to help them find ways to more stable and secure situations. Navigating the various issues, I have often wanted a handbook with specific instructions as to how, exactly we meet the needs of everyone involved, both the people seeking shelter and members of the congregation, when often times the sets of concerns are not the same. I must also admit, I’ve been tempted to make having neat, clean outdoor spaces, cleared of people and their belongings the only priority, but to accomplish that immediately would require that we run  people off, most of whom currently have no safe place to go. Our problem would be solved, but the serious problems of our neighbors would remain. So, instead, we as a church, through the efforts of staff and congregation members, are working intentionally with people sheltering here to establish effective boundaries and norms of behavior while also trying to find ways we can support them in securing better situations.

This week, when I was wrestling with my own frustration about the energy I and others have been expending on dealing with the litany of problems occurring outside, I had a chance to talk with someone who has been staying on the property. This person shared that this place has been somewhere they feel safe, and they wanted the church to know how much they appreciated being able to stay during a difficult time. The person went on to say with a big smile how pleased they were that last Sunday they were able to give two dollars to add to the church’s offering in thanksgiving for this kindness. It wasn’t much, the person said, but it was important to them to give the gift. After spending much of the week reading about Jesus making sure his disciples notice a poor widow giving her last two copper coins, this got my attention and reaffirmed for me the continued call to share Christ’s love with our neighbor. It is not a quick process as we struggle with making the needs and well-being of others our focus and our concern, but I do believe that practicing this kind of care is what we are called to do as we follow Jesus.

As we each look for the strength, courage, and guidance to navigate  the many challenging situations we face, it is an extra blessing to have a baptism this morning. When Indie Blake is baptized today (at the 10am service), we will rejoice with her and her family as she is reborn into new life in Christ. Baptism gives us all an opportunity to remember our own baptismal covenant, which includes our promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. These are promises we make initially based on our theoretical knowledge of what these words mean, and as we live our lives in Christ we, and the many people we encounter, come to experience the wonderful fullness of these promises in action. As we pray that Indie throughout her life will have an inquiring and discerning heart and the courage to will and to persevere, we join with her in praying for ourselves as well, knowing that at all times and in all places and in all circumstances we do these things with God’s help.

There is a prayer I came across multiple times this week that I’d like to share. I feel this Franciscan Benediction expresses the many challenges we face and the hopes we share as we strive to live our lives in loving faithfulness.     Let us pray.

 

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen.

An Election Week Reminder

One of the unintended consequences of cutting the cord on our satellite dish has been the return of local commercials as we watch network television via an antenna.  This time of year, local commercials means only one thing – political commercials.  With almost every local official up for re-election and several key state and national races in play, my Saturday SEC on CBS was inundated with adds begging me to vote, occasionally for someone, but, more often, against someone.  The timing seems about right.  Races tend to turn negative in the last 10 days or so as a candidate tries to motivate his or her base to get out and vote.  Negative ads all seem to turn around one key question, can my opponent be trusted? From the perspective of the ad maker, the answer should be an obvious no, and they’ll do pretty much whatever they can to ensure it.

Turning the question around trust is an interesting tactic, as once again, RCL Track 2 congregations will find themselves reading Psalm 146 during an election week.  It shouldn’t take you long to realize that the Scriptures don’t have much time for modern political campaign strategies.

146:2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Despite what TV and radio ads, door hangers, and an entire rainforest full of mailers might suggest, God knows that the empire is not the means to the ends of the Kingdom of God.  Despite the reality that Christianity has essentially been the state religion for more than 1,600 years, followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have never really been intended to fit within the parameters of the empire.  Our’s is a higher calling than Republican or Democrat, but rather, as the Psalmist goes on to say “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! * whose hope is in the Lord their God”

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Every election season, this seems to be harder and harder to remember.  Granted, it is also increasingly clear that candidates and their supporters have no qualms with muddying up their theology with partisan politics.  When any politician is made out to be on par with the eternal Word of God, things have gotten a skewed.  As followers of Jesus, our call is above and beyond that fray.  Our call, again in the words of the Psalmist, is to righteousness, which is defined by such actions as caring for the stranger, sustaining the orphan and the widow, and frustrating the way of the wicked.

It is ok to allow your faith to inform your vote, but when we get turned around and make our vote our faith and place our trust in the rulers of the earth, then we have lost sight of the Kingdom of God.  So, pray for all candidates for political office.  Vote your conscience.  But always remember, that God’s kingdom and its righteousness is where your trust is more properly aligned.

We all feebly struggle

A friend of mine from seminary is fond of saying that it is through our hymns the we best articulate our heresies.  His particular point of interest was in the Christmas hymn, “Hark! The herald angels sing” and the line, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see,” which bears the weight of the 2nd century gnostic heresy.  Gnosticism was built on the idea that creation is evil and God is good, and so Jesus couldn’t have actually been both God and human.  Rather, either the Christ was a lesser god that had been sent to earth, or that he was God, veiled in flesh, but not actually incarnated.  Anyway, it fits the meter and is a classic hymn by Charles Wesley, so we sing it every Christmas, without fear.

Another example comes around on All Saints’ Sunday when we sing “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” in the midst of “For all the saints, who from their labors rest.”  While not quite rising to the level of heresy, this line tends to add to our misunderstandings about sainthood.  It probably actually means that while we continue to struggle on earth while those who have gone before rest in God’s eternal glory in heaven, but the popular understanding of sainthood has been so muddied by Roman Catholicism that it tends to feed this idea that saints are some sort of other worldly Christians, the likes of which we will never attain.  It is not uncommon for me to be talking with someone about sainthood, be they a regular church-goer or totally de-churched, and they will bring up the need for verifiable miracles, beatifications, and canonization.  These are the things of news stories, as we hear about Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa making their way through the process of sainthood after their deaths.

The reaction to this often goes one of two ways.  Some are in awe of the faith and good works that have been done by people like Mother Teresa.  “We feebly struggle, but they in glory shine” indeed.  They are enamored with their religious celebrity and wonder if they could even be half the Christian these saints were in their lives.  More often, the response is confusion.  They’ve read the stories of Teresa’s struggle with doubt or know about John Paul’s role in covering up the child abuse scandals, and wonder how anyone could think of them as better than any of the rest of us.  The most critical response to the concept of sainthood is often tied in with a very popular reason for not going to church these days, “They’re all just hypocrites anyway, preaching one thing and living another.”

My response to this criticism is to admit, readily and fully, that we all feebly struggle.  Whether we are talking about Saint Francis, Mary Magdalene, Howard Surface, or Mary Jo Cook, the life of faith is for all of us, a daily struggle.  As Mother Becca said last week, every morning, as foot hits the floor, we must make the choice to follow Jesus.  That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect, far from it, but it means that as we feebly struggle, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to redeem us, and the Father’s love to sustain us.  The church is full of hypocrites, and the communion of saints is full of them too, which is why we set aside this Feast of All Saints, to give thanks to God for the grace that carries all of us sinners.

We are living in an era in which the news is full of famous men who claim to follow Jesus but seem to have become famous mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Violent misogynists and anti-Semites have become the famous men of our time, and it is the work of the Church this All Saints’ Sunday that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on the righteous and godly women and men who have lived the struggle and “have perished as though they never existed.”

See, what makes you a saint isn’t the amazing things you do, but rather what God is doing through you.  In the New Testament, when Paul writes about the saints, he uses it as a synonym for disciples.  There, he doesn’t even mean those who have already died in the faith, but rather all who have ever sought the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.  While it is the custom here at Christ Church to list, by name, the saints of this parish who have died in the past year, the list of saints properly includes all of us as well.  In a deeply counter-cultural move, we name as saints not only those whose names are written on monuments or carried in the news, but also regular folk who have lived their lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

The reality of All Saints’ Day that the Ecclesiasticus lesson names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have lived in the faith of Christ.  It is especially our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, and those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.  In a world that prefers to name the infamous, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy examples those who might have become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.

For we who remain on earth, sometimes feebly struggling to follow the Way of Love, All Saints’ Day is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Gospel.  As Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, so All Saints’ Day challenges us to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world?  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity?  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  With God’s help, these choices must be made daily, if not hour by hour or minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” puts it, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  Dear saints of God, as we walk through the struggle of this great ordeal together, what will you choose?  Will you choose sainthood?  Will you choose blessedness?  Will you, with God’s help, choose the Way of Love in Kingdom of God?  Amen.

What makes a saint?

Some 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, the common understanding of sainthood is stilly mostly influenced by Roman Catholicism.  We might vaguely know about the need for miracles, or that the process involves steps like beatification and canonization.  These things often cloud the broader understanding of what actually makes a saint.  Rather than it being about religious celebrity or those who have made significant impacts or even those who were martyred for their faith, in the New Testament, sainthood is simply a synonym for discipleship.  When Paul writes about the saints, he isn’t even necessarily talking about those who have died in the faith of Christ, but rather all who have sought the kingdom and its righteousness.

A seminary classmate of mine was fond of saying that our hymns best show our heresies.  This was usually in response to that line in “Hark! the herald angels sing” that invokes the gnostic heresy when it says, “veiled in flesh, the godhead see.”  “For all the saints,” one of the classic All Saints’ hymns might not tip-toe into heresy, but it certainly exacerbates our profoundly misunderstood theology of sainthood in the line, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”  Even those saints that we honor with specific feasts like Francis, Nicholas, or Mary Magdalene feebly struggled from time to time.

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The saints of God

The life of faith, the only qualification necessary for the title of saint, is a daily struggle.  It requires us, as Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world.  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity.  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  These choices must be made, with God’s help, daily, if not minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” says, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Dear saints of God, what will you choose this day?