Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Power of the Word

First Sunday After Christmas – Year A
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-35, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Sunday, December 30, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Words are a powerful thing. Be they spoken or written, be they prose or poetry, words can carry incredible potency and potential. They can stir our thoughts and imaginations, prompt dreams and possibilities. They can evoke strong feelings and emotions, both positive and negative. They can be the motivation for action, both good and bad. They can create and they can destroy. They can influence our perception of the past and can shape our outlook on the future.

Virtually all of our communications, at least, any communications conveying complex ideas, generally require the use of words, either in spoken or written form. Think about the place of words in your life, on our collective life, and what influence words can have.

As we approach 2008, we move full speed ahead into an election year. Candidates are vying for the votes they will need to make them the next President of the United States. They do this through their words. They make speeches extolling their virtues and their experience which make them the right choice, or criticize and even vilify their opponents in an attempt to demonstrate why they are not the right choice. They engage in debates and interviews, where they present their positions on key issues, attempting to convince us that they will lead the country down the right path. And then we have to take all these words, figure out which ones resonate with our own personal political and social views, and make our choice for who we think will do the best job. So much hinge on these candidates’ words. Based on their words, we will make the choices that will lead this country down a good and noble path, or down a path of that could lead to trouble and turmoil, if not ruin and destruction. Either is a possibility. Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were elected based on their political rhetoric. But so was Adolf Hitler.

Many of the people in this congregation are or have been teachers or professors. They have used their mastery of the word, both spoken and written, to convey knowledge about their particular fields of expertise. Through their words, they have educated those under their tutelage. And they have inspired some students to go on to further their education in a particular field of study – students that may further contribute to research in that field and further expand society’s understanding of a particular subject.

Journalists, regardless of whether they work for newspapers, magazines, radio, or television, use their mastery of words to convey a broad array of information on a variety of subjects. Through their use of words, they inform us about what is going on in our own neighborhoods, across our country, and around the world. And, when dealing with controversial subjects (and what subject is not controversial these days?) they, through their careful choice of words, help shape public opinion and attempt to influence what we view as right and what we view as wrong.

Even in the church, in our worship services, words play an important part in our faith journeys and our relationship with God. Scripture and the words of our prayers attempt to convey the essence of our common faith. Preachers and pastors, through the careful crafting of their words, seek to inform people’s understanding of scripture, help them understand how sacred words written millennia ago are still relevant to our lives today, challenge their congregations to figure out what their faith means to them, and guide their parishioners as they travel along their respective spiritual journeys. And choirs sing anthems and lead us in hymns – words set to music, intended to convey the story of our faith and evoke an understanding and a personal, emotional response to the story that is not achieved through the mere spoken or written word.

The words we use and hear daily have great potential to influence and even change our lives – both personal and corporate – as well as our society and our environment. But we are just now beginning to understand the true power that words have on our lives and on our environment. Japanese physician and researcher Masaru Emoto has done extensive work on the affect that words, thoughts, feelings, and even music, have on physical reality. Dr. Emoto’s research is based on his extensive experimentation with frozen water crystals. He has discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated words or thoughts are directed toward them. When water samples are bombarded with negative or hateful words or thoughts, and the water is then frozen, the molecules form into amorphous blobs without any clear crystalline structure. But when water samples are bombarded with positive or loving words, and the water is then frozen, the molecules form into intricate, delicate, symmetrical, crystalline structures. Even such a simple word as “thank you” resulted in a remarkable transformation in the structure of water molecules. In one notable experiment, some lake water was examined and determined to have a dark, amorphous structure with no crystalline structure. After the chief priest of a local temple did a one-hour prayer practice over the lake, a new water sample was taken and frozen. The ugly, brownish blob of the former sample had become a clear, bright white, hexagonal crystal-within-a-crystal.

The implications of Dr. Emoto’s research are staggering. Our human bodies are made up of over 70 percent water. If water, the water inside our very bodies, is indeed responsive to words, the type of words we are exposed to, the type of words we ourselves use, can have an amazing impact on our own physical health. And that impact on our physical health cannot help but influence our mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being. Not only that, but similarly, the Earth is about 70 percent water. Dr. Emoto’s research indicates that our words may not only affect our bodies, but our planet and its environment, as well. Words may indeed be more powerful than we had previously thought.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear of the most powerful word of all – the Word (with a capital W). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). We hear of the ultimate word from God, the word that was from before creation, the Word that is not just from God, but is God.

Throughout our history, God has been trying to get us to hear his Word. As Genesis tells us, creation came into being by the very act of God’s spoken word. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep . . . Then God said, ‘Let their be light’” (Gen. 1:1-2a,3a). God spoke in creation, and all that is came into being. But God’s word did not stop there. God continued to speak to His people. God called Abraham into covenant, to become a mighty nation. God spoke to Moses out of a burning bush and called him to lead His people to the Promised Land. God continued to speak through the Law at Sinai and through the prophets. Throughout scripture, “The Word means much more than simple speech; it is God in action: creating, revealing, and redeeming. It is the invisible God incarnated in action” (The Living Church, Dec. 31, 2007, 4).

At this time of year, we celebrate God’s ultimate action, the ultimate speaking of the Word, the giving of His Word to all humanity. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Word took on human form to be among us, to live among us, to be one of us. The Word took on human form so that we might finally be able to truly hear the Word of God. Yes, the Word was spoken in creation, the Word was spoken to and through Abraham and Moses, through the Law and the Prophets. But we didn’t hear it, or at least we didn’t fully comprehend the message. So God had to take extreme measures, so that we would not just hear it, but experience it. God had to find some way to make his message alive for us. He had to make his Word alive, in a manner that we could see and hear and touch. The eternal Word had to become bounded by space and time, had to become bounded by human flesh. Only then could we hear the Word that has been spoken from before time and space began. And so, the Word became flesh in the form of Jesus, God’s only begotten Son. In the “Word made flesh,” Jesus embodies what God wants to say to us. In Jesus, God is saying “I love you.”

If Masaru Emoto’s research is correct, a simple kind word from a fellow human being can have a profound impact on our lives. A simple “thank you.” A simple “you matter.” How much more profound of an impact, then, does the Word from God, the Word made flesh, the eternal “I love you” that was spoken in the birth of Jesus, have?

This season we celebrate the coming of the Word made flesh, the Word that has potency and potential unlike any other word ever uttered, by human or by God. This Word has, and will continue to stir our thoughts and imaginations. This Word has, and will continue to prompt our dreams and possibilities. This Word does, and will continue to evoke strong feelings and emotions. This Word has been, and continues to be the motivation for action to do significant good in the world. This is the Word that continues to create, who gives new life. And because of this new life freely given, this Word shapes our outlook on the future.

The proclamation of the eternal Word in human form, the Word made flesh, was not proclaimed with a shout. The Word came in the form of a baby, born in a backwater town in a remote outpost of civilization. No, the Word coming in flesh as a baby is but a mere whisper – the tender, sweet whispering of the Beloved, to us, His beloveds. But the Word continues to be spoken. As the child grows into manhood, as he begins his public ministry, as he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, cares for the orphan and widow, proclaims the Good News, the Word grows in intensity, becomes clearer, takes on greater meaning. No, the Word would not become a shout until Christ’s death and resurrection, when the whisper of that baby’s birth would take on its full meaning, reveal its greatest significance. At that point, and only then, would God’s full message be revealed, would the eternal Word be known, would the Word made flesh have its greatest power – the Word spoken to all humanity, saying, “I love you above all else, and would do anything to save you and make you my own. Even if it means giving up my only son. Because you’re worthy of the gift of my Word. You are worth it. Every one of you is worth it.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Prince of Peace Reigns

Christmas Day – Year A
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; Luke 2:1-20
Tuesday, December 25, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

The angel of the Lord proclaimed, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

As Advent has wound down, and as the Christmas season begins, I have been reflecting on the names, or attributes given to the Messiah, the Savior, by the Prophet Isaiah – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. In my reflections, I find that I keep coming back to the image of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. While not specifically part of today’s Old Testament lesson, the portion of Isaiah that we did hear invokes rich imagery of the one who comes heralding peace. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.” It is hard not to hear Isaiah’s earlier reference to the Prince of Peace in this passage.

I suppose it is natural to turn to this imagery, to this hope, of the Prince of Peace at such a time as we find ourselves in. Everywhere you turn, there is news of war and violence. We are involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are threats of war in Iran. There is ongoing violence and conflict in Israel-Palestine. In our own back yard there are gang wars. And where there is not war in the strict military sense, there is the imagery and language of war. We are fighting the war on terrorism, the war on drugs. So where is the Prince of Peace in all of this?

I would like to share with you a Christmas story. To me, it is one of the most inspiring, one of the most hope-filled stories about the birthday of the Prince of Peace. It is the story of the Christmas truce.

It was December 24, 1914 – the first Christmas of World War I. In preparation for Christmas, German troops in the region of Ypres, Belgium began decorating the area around their trenches. They placed candles on trees and sang Christmas carols, the most notable being Stille Nacht (Silent Night). British troops in the trenches on the opposite side of the “No Man’s Land” responded by singing English carols. The German and British troops continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, troops from both sides met in the No Man’s Land, shaking hands, exchanging Christmas greetings, and sharing small gifts of whisky, jam, cigars, chocolate, and the like.

In the silence afforded by the absence of artillery fire, recently-fallen soldiers were brought back behind their lines for burial. This was an opportunity for proper funerals, as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects to fallen comrades and fallen enemies.

The unauthorized Christmas truce spread to other areas of the battle lines, with similar exchanges of Christmas greetings and gifts, and jointly administered funerals. There are even reports of football (soccer) matches between the British and German troops. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night. But in some areas, it continued until New Year’s Day. Sadly, the British commanders, upon hearing of the unauthorized Christmas truce, were, to say the least, not pleased. They vowed that no such truce would be allowed again. In following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to ensure that no such cessation of combat would occur again. Despite their best efforts, some friendly encounters between enemy soldiers did occur, although on a much smaller scale than the Christmas of 1914.

The powers that be just didn’t get it. But the average soldier in the trenches, the soldiers on the front lines, did. Even though they were at war with one another, those enemy soldiers understood the meaning of Christmas. They understood that Christ is the Prince of Peace, and, at least for one day, it was far more important for them to share that understanding, to share their faith, to share peace. For one day, they were not British or German. They were not enemies. They were brothers in Christ, brothers in the service of the Prince of Peace. And for that one day, they lived as if the good news proclaimed by the angels at Bethlehem 1,900 years before was actually true.

The angels announced the birth of Jesus not to the Roman occupation or to the local Jewish authorities, but to the shepherds. The Roman and Jewish authorities would not listen to, much less believe, that the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, was coming into the world. Such a One would undermine their authority. But the shepherds would listen. These common folk would know the significance of this event, and would know how to live into the new reality being born along with this child.

The angels announced the birth of the Prince of Peace not to the British and German commanders directing military strategy in Belgium during World War I, but to the soldiers on the front lines. The commanders would not follow the orders of this Prince. The presence of such a One would undermine their goals to win the war at all costs. But the soldiers on the front lines heard the message. They knew the significance of Christmas as the birthday of the Prince of Peace, and, at least for one day, knew how to live into the reality that was born along with this child.

The angels announce the birth of the Prince of Peace to us this day. We can learn a lot about the meaning of this significant event from those soldiers fighting on the front lines in Belgium. For that one day, they saw not enemy, but only friend. They dared to see the Christ in each other. They dared to see in each other the one who comes to bring peace. How different would the world be now if that Christmas truce lasted more than just one day? How different would our world be today if we followed their example in our lives, in our own relationships, in our own conflicts? How different would our world be if we did not just celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, but actually lived as if the Prince of Peace reigns?

It is not enough to merely gaze upon the child lying in the manger. Yes, the child is beautiful and worthy of adoration and worship. But that is not nearly enough. For this is no ordinary child. This is the Prince of Peace. This is the one “who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to [all the Earth], ‘Your God [, the Prince of Peace,] reigns” here and now.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Outside the Box

Advent 3 – Year A
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Sunday, December 16, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Mark Twain once said, “A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.”

In today’s Gospel reading, we find John the Baptist struggling with his own expectations. He questions if Jesus is the One who is to come, the Messiah. This is a change from his previous position. Not long before he was arrested, John was at the River Jordan, preaching about the coming of the Messiah. This was the part of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard last week. And then, in the midst of this scene, Jesus shows up, requesting to be baptized by John. (Apparently back then, you weren’t required to go through classes to prepare for baptism.) John initially objects, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt. 3:14) To which Jesus replies, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). Only then does John consent.

In his statement of objection, John is acknowledging Jesus’ superiority, that he is the Messiah about whom he has just been prophesying. And John’s initial inclination is confirmed by God Himself. As Jesus comes up out of the water, “the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt. 3:16-17).

But now, seven chapters later, John is uncertain. There is a part of him, buried deep within his spirit that senses that Jesus still might be the One. But at the same time, there is a touch of doubt. So what’s happened in these intervening seven chapters that has caused John to doubt, or at least, to question, his messianic prophesy regarding Jesus?

Following his baptism and his subsequent temptation the desert, Jesus has formally begun his public ministry in Galilee. He has called his disciples and has begun ministering to the people. He has been teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick and the lame, casting out demons, restoring sight to the blind, restoring hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute, and even raising the dead. Not only that, but he has also given his disciples the authority to these things, as well. He has preached revolutionary sermons, the most notable being the Sermon on the Mount. He has reinterpreted the law and given radical new instruction on conduct and prayer. He has even been known to fraternize with tax collectors and sinners.

The news of Jesus’ activities has reached John the Baptist, and now he doesn’t know what to think. Just before he baptized Jesus, John was talking about the coming Messiah. Remember these words from last week’s Gospel lesson? “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). That’s what a messiah is expected to do, isn’t it? But wait! That’s not anything like Jesus. What Jesus and his disciples have been doing are deeds of compassion, not of fiery judgment.

In short, Jesus does not quite live up to John’s image of what the Messiah should be. In fact, it’s not just John the Baptist. Jesus does not live up to the messianic expectations commonly held by any of the Jews of his day. He is not living up to the image of the great warrior king who will deliver his people from the hands of the oppressors.

Yet, there is still something about this man. Despite what John expects, there is still something inside him that seems to say Jesus might just be the one John has been looking for, the one whom John has been preaching would come. But what he thinks he knows about the Messiah and what he senses in his heart and soul just don’t mesh. Troubled by this disconnect, John sends his own disciples to Jesus to find out first hand if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

But Jesus’ response to John’s disciples’ questioning is not what John would have expected, not what John or his disciples was looking for. They wanted a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, Jesus gives a poetic response, invoking the prophet Isaiah: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus is saying that they should not trust in mere words. Anyone can say the words. Anyone could say, “yes, I am the One.” Rather, he tells them to trust what they have observed. Look around and decide for yourself. Trust your hearts. Through his response, Jesus expects John to recognize that Jesus’ acts are a fulfillment of Scripture, most notably the prophecies of Isaiah, which we heard in our Old Testament lesson.

But what’s more important is what Jesus does not say – what Jesus implies in his response. He’s saying, “John, John, John. You just don’t get it, do you? You’ve bought into this whole set of Jewish messianic expectations, but that’s not how God works. Just look at Scripture. Look at the history of our people. Ya gotta think outside the box!”

John and the other Jews of his day fully expected that the Messiah would be a warrior king. He would be someone who would ride in on a valiant steed, conquer the enemy, liberate the people from their oppressors, and then start cleaning house – sitting in judgment over the people as they confessed their sins against God and sought repentance. And those who did not live up to his expectations would undoubtedly be punished for their failure to live according to God’s law.

But God, through Jesus, offered a different model of Messiah. This Messiah would not be a warrior king who executes fiery judgment. No, this Messiah would be a compassionate servant who brings healing and wholeness to all who seek it. This would not be a Messiah who would ride in on a valiant steed, but rather one who would arrive riding a lowly donkey. This would not be a Messiah who condemns, but rather would be one who embraces. This would not be a Messiah who destroys, but rather would be one who gives life. This would not be a Messiah who preserves the lives of a chosen few, but rather would be one who gives his life for the sake of all.

Because of this, there is another very significant way in which Jesus did not live up to the messianic expectations of John. Jesus was executed. And not just executed, but crucified – the most horrible and painful form of execution available. But despite this, he proved himself Messiah in that he was resurrected. Yet one more example of how the Messiah operated outside the box. Because of his death and resurrection, we live in him. Because of his death and resurrection, we are the Body of Christ. Because of his death and resurrection, Christ lives through us because we live in him.

Because of this “outside the box” approach in which Christ continues to live through us as his Body, we are likewise called to live outside the box. In his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, healed the sick and the lame, cast out demons, restored sight to the blind, restored hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute, and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He gave his disciples authority to likewise. As his Body, we are called to do the same. We may not have the same skills for doing this that Jesus did. After all, Jesus had a slight advantage that we don’t. He was the Son of God. So, all the more, we need to be creative, to think and act outside the box.

How do you feel called to live as the Body of Christ? Is it by feeding the hungry? Giving shelter to the homeless? Healing the sick? Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom? In this broken world, there is so much need for doing the compassionate deeds that Jesus lived for, and died for. As the Body of Christ, we are given the job of continuing those deeds. Maybe not in the same way Jesus did them, but in our own way. And there are certainly plenty of opportunities, if we are just open to them.

A couple weeks ago, at the Sunday evening Taiz√© service for UCLA students, we were reflecting on the meaning of Advent. After I gave my reflections on Advent, I invited the students to reflect on what Advent means to them. To a person, they all talked about how Advent is about meeting the Christ in other people, about seeing Christ in the other, about responding to the Christ in others. While they didn’t know it, they were echoing the words of St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, who write in his Rule for his monks that they were to greet all their guests and one another as if they were Christ. Without specifically saying so and possibly without even really consciously knowing it, these students had made a profound theological connection. Advent is about anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ. But Christ has already come. He was born 2,000 years ago. He lived. He died. He was resurrected. Because of his death and resurrection, we live in him; we are the Body of Christ. Because of this, we are to live as Jesus lived, doing deeds of compassion. Because of this, we must constantly be in an Advent mindset – prepared to meet the Christ in others, in the other who is in need of compassion. For as Jesus admonishes, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).

As Christians, we live in a perpetual season of Advent. For us, no matter what calendar says, it’s Advent. Every day presents us with opportunities to anticipate the coming of our Messiah. Every day presents us with opportunities to prepare for the coming of Christ, because Christ comes to us every day in the guise of our fellow human beings. And every day presents us with opportunities to be the Body of Christ, ministering to the other with deeds of compassion. Sometimes that’s easy to do, sometimes it’s a challenge, and more often than not, it means we have to be a little creative in how we go about it. After all, living the Gospel means thinking and living outside the box. And that can certainly lead to unexpected results. Just ask John the Baptist.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Blessing of Civil Marriage

Blessing of the Marriage of John and Mai Swartwood
Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7; Colossians 3:12-17
Saturday, December 8, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

It is appropriate that John and Mai should choose to have their marriage blessed here at St. Alban’s. After all, this is where it all started. This is where they met. This is where they fell in love. And now, after entering into the bonds of marriage in the ritual and tradition of Mai’s native Japan, they have chosen to complete the process by seeking blessing of that marriage in John’s Christian tradition.

In that tradition, we turn to holy scripture as a guide for marriage. Today’s Scripture readings speak of the important qualities required for marriage, particularly for Christian marriage.

The Old Testament reading from the Song of Solomon speaks of the romantic aspects, of the passion and the desire that is embodied in a loving relationship between man and woman – of the passion, desire and love that bring a man and a woman together, that have brought John and Mai together in the bonds of marriage. Such passion and desire are necessary for love to blossom and grow, and are necessary for marriage to occur. And passion and desire are necessary for a marriage to last. Those marriages that do last are filled with romance, with passion and desire that enrichen the relationship, and make it always fresh and always new. But the romantic alone does not a marriage make – at least not a marriage that will last.

Today’s New Testament reading from Colossians speaks of the other part that is needed for a long-lasting marriage. This passage is part of a longer section in which Paul exhorts the Christian community at Colossae to holiness of life, specifically in terms of what it means to be a community of believers and how to live into that life – a life in union with Christ that is not static but which is seen in terms of growth leading to perfection or spiritual maturity. These words outline the virtues that promote harmony and unity in relationship. While written to a community 2,000 years ago, this passage provides words of wisdom as to how to live into a life in the bonds of holy matrimony. These words provide insight into what a man and a woman need to do in order to live together as one.

First off, Paul exhorts them to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” These are all important virtues to be exercised in any relationship, but particularly so in one as close as that of husband and wife. In compassion and kindness, one partner has sympathy for the situation and circumstances faced by the other. In addition, each partner takes as their focus the consideration of the needs and interests of the other. In humility, one partner considers his or her spouse as better than himself or herself. In meekness, one partner is willing to cede his or her rights to those of the other, rather than being concerned with personal gain – again, the needs and interests of the other partner are made top priority. And in patience, one partner is willing and able to make allowances, not excuses, but allowances, for any shortcomings of the other, and is thereby able to tolerate the ways in which those shortcomings may be manifest.

Paul goes on to exhort them to “bear with one another,” further lifting up the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. In addition, he is pointing out the realistic nature of relationship – that it is inevitable that there will be complaints and conflicts. And when one partner is not able to live up to these virtues and falls short, or is the subject of a complaint or the instigator of a conflict – and this will happen from time to time – Paul urges that they “forgive each other.” And the example to be followed is that of our Lord – “just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

“Above all,” Paul then writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” It is your love for one another that has brought you to this point in time. It is your love for one another that will bind you together in the many times of joy that you will share. And it is your love for one another that will give you the strength and the courage you need to work through any challenges you may face. It is that love that will guide you and enable the perfect harmony that you are called to. That will not always mean perfect agreement. But it will mean a sense of wholeness. Through your love for one another, with that love as your guiding principle, you will be able to establish a harmony in your relationship that will make you whole as a couple.

And finally, Paul provides the means by which you may accomplish that sense of wholeness that you seek in your partnership. It is something that you, John, have already found through your faith in God and in Christ, and which you seek to share with Mai. Paul admonishes, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts . . . [to] let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . . and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Your love for one another is what binds you together, but it is the example of God’s perfect love made manifest through the gift of his son, Jesus Christ, that makes your love possible, that strengthens your love, and helps you to become whole. You have already experienced that in the journey that brought you together and in the journey that has brought you to this glorious day. Every day, give thanks to God for the gift of love and for the gift of each other. In your joy together, remember that God has made this possible and rejoice in what has been provided to you. And when you experience challenges, pray to God for strength and guidance, and that through those experiences, your love may be strengthened.

John and Mai, keep these words always in your hearts and your minds, for they will provide you with what you need as you embark on this journey called marriage. They will serve you well in both times of joy and in times of challenge. If you let them, and with God’s help, they will not only guide your relationship, but they will also be the means by which your relationship continues to be strengthened and brought to wholeness.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Jumping Off the Cliff

One of the things that I have always admired in preachers is the ability to preach a complete sermon without notes or manuscript. This ability is something that I aspire to as I grow into my priesthood. In the past, I have preached two sermons without notes - once at a community Eucharist at Seabury, and once at St. Paul & the Redeemer, the parish in Chicago where I did my field ed. Both went very well. In fact, people at St. Paul & the Redeemer still remember the "Batman sermon" which I preached without notes. After that experience, one woman, a professional actress, told me that I should always preach without notes, that it is my natural preaching voice. But since then, I have not had the courage to do it again. Until yesterday.

Susan generally preaches without notes at the 8:00 service, but uses a manuscript at the 10:00 service. The difference between the chapel and the main church make preaching at 8:00 without notes more do-able, whereas the layout of the main church, which really necessitates using the pulpit for preaching, lends itself more to preaching from a manuscript (though it need not be so). At any rate, Susan has been challenging me to try preaching without a manuscript at the 8:00. As I was preparing my sermon for this past Sunday, I decided that I would do just that.

So, yesterday, I preached at 8:00 without my manuscript. I did prepare a "cheat sheet" with a few bullet points, just in case I forgot where I was going. But I left it in the Gospel book and didn't even take it with me as I stepped down into the aisle to preach. The sermon when great! The congregation really liked it and many people said they particulalry liked the delivery style. I felt really good about it and was not nervous at all.

At 10:00, I opted for the manuscript. That one also went well, but had a different feeling than 8:00. I actually much prefer not using the manuscript, as I feel I am better able to connect with the congregation -- it's more of a conversation and less of a "lecture." I probably will not always "go solo" at 8:00, as there are times when I feel I need to carefully craft my words. Hence, a manuscript serves me better than my poor memory. But I do think I want to try preaching without notes on occasion, just to keep it fresh. Who knows, some day I may even try it at 10:00.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Living in the Present

Proper 27 – Year C (Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)
Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 17:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5; Luke 20:27-38
Sunday, November 11, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke is a rather puzzling one. It centers on a theological disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, two sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus. While there were a number of differences in the beliefs of these two groups, the primary difference being debated here has to do with belief in resurrection. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees, not. In the on-going debate, the Sadducees would often pose trick questions to the Pharisees, in an attempt to disprove the Pharisaic belief. In the incident recorded in Luke, the Sadducees pose a hypothetical question to the Pharisees, using the ancient tradition of levirate marriage as a backdrop. Levirate marriage was the custom that if a man died without producing a child (presumably male), his brother would be obligated to marry the widow and produce an heir to carry on the name of the dead man, keep his property in the immediate family, and provide security for the brother’s widow. In this case, the Sadducees pose a hypothetical situation in which a man with seven brothers dies. Each brother, in turn marries the widow, and subsequently dies before producing an heir. Now, at the resurrection, who will the unlucky widow actually be married to? This is obviously an absurd example used in an attempt to reinforce the Sadducee’s position that there is no resurrection.

Unlike other encounters with the Sadducees, in our current reading, there does not appear to be any attempt on their part to trap Jesus, but rather merely to get his opinion on this long-running debate. In effect, Jesus’ response puts them in their place. His considered opinion is that life in the resurrection will not be like life as we know it. There will be no need for people to marry and produce children because people will not die. Children simply will not be needed to carry on the family name. To drive the point home, Jesus even appeals to scriptural authority, to an authority that the Sadducees acknowledged and respected. He references the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, all of whom were obviously dead by the time the scriptures were written. Yet, scripture states that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not die to God, but live to God (4 Maccabees 7:19). For these patriarchs to be made alive to God could only happen through resurrection.

Why is this theological disagreement between two Jewish sects of importance? At the time that Luke wrote his Gospel, it is quite possible that that the early Jewish-Christians may have had genuine concern about what resurrection would mean for them and for their loved ones. But is that still the case for us today? Are we still concerned about what resurrection means and how it will affect us? To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a contemporary Christian, or at least, a contemporary Episcopalian, ask about resurrection, other than in the context of Christ’s resurrection. We just don’t seem to be worried about such matters. But, despite that, I think there is still something that we can and need to learn from this rather puzzling story.

I find it a marvelous gift that many times when I read a passage from Scripture, I find something new, hear something that I had not heard before, or have an insight that I had not had before. That’s the beauty of our Scriptures. If we let it, the stories and messages can be new and fresh every time we approach them. That was my experience with this puzzling Gospel lesson. As I initially read the lessons early in the week, I saw something that I had not seen before. Or rather, to be more accurate, what jumped out at me was what I didn’t see in the text. It was what the people in the story seemed to be missing.

If we look at the lesson from Luke and consider the focus of the characters’ concerns, we see that in the debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and the trick question that is used to illustrate this debate, the focus is on the future. They are concerned with what will happen to them and their loved ones in the resurrection – in some incomprehensible future event. They are worried about what will be, about what might be. They are obsessed with what will happen in the future, and as a result, are missing out on what is happening in the present. That’s what’s missing. Being present to what is happening in the present, in the here and now.

How many of us fall into the trap in which the Sadducees and Pharisees have become ensnared? How many of us focus on what will happen in the future – tomorrow, next week, next month, next year? I think our society has become so goal oriented that that’s where we devote a great deal of our attention – on how to get to the next goal, be it a major career goal, or be it a relatively innocuous one, such as “how am I going to find time to do the laundry?” Or even worse, we succumb to worrying about things that might or might not ultimately happen. Here’s a few that I have run across in my own life. I have so many meetings this week, when am I going to find time to prepare my sermon? Or, the car’s making a funny noise. How will I get to work if the car breaks down? Or, the stock market is acting like a roller coaster, wreaking havoc with my retirement funds. Will I have enough money to live on when I retire (25 years from now)?

I see this future-oriented focus in many of the students that I encounter in my role as Episcopal Chaplain at UCLA. I find that in the 23 years since I completed my undergraduate degree, not much has changed. When I was a student, I just wanted to get through with my education so I could get on with my life. I knew that my education was important, but also tended to view it as merely a stepping stone, and at times, a stumbling block, standing between me and the rest of my life. Many of today’s students are of the same mindset. But this mindset is not reserved for students. How many of us even now in our jobs or other life circumstances see the situation we are in as merely another hurdle to be endured on the way to our real goal?

Admittedly, thinking about and planning for the future is important, and has its place. But it need not be all-consuming. For if it is, in the process of being focused on what will be or what might be, we run the risk of missing out on what is going on right now. What we particularly miss out on is something that is very subtle, yet oh so important to our development as human beings, to our development as God’s beloved children. We miss out on the gentle and subtle ways that God moves in our lives, touching us, speaking to us, caressing us, nurturing us.

Being an engineer and planner by training, I do tend to be future-oriented. But one of the most important things I have learned from the church is that God is present in the here and now, and that if we are not attentive to the subtle ways in which God operates in our lives, we will surely miss them. This was made very clear to me during my seminary education. Being back in school, I had the occasional tendency to view seminary as another hurdle to be surmounted before I could get on with my life as a priest. But I had experienced enough of God’s grace to know that God speaks to us in the present. So I allowed myself to enter into the moment and not worry about what the future would hold. As a result, seminary turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Unfortunately, some of my classmates viewed it merely as a hurdle. And as a result, they had a miserable time, feeling that it was, by and large, a waste of time. How sad. How unfortunate that they felt they wasted three years of their lives. If they had been open to the present, been attentive to how and where God was moving in their lives, they might have found that instead of three wasted years that delayed them from achieving their goal, that they had three wonderful years, filled with God’s love and grace, that would nourish and enrich them for the rest of their lives.

While the story in today’s Gospel lesson is future-oriented, and in my interpretation, cautions us against obsessing about the future and allowing ourselves to live in the present, I think the same principle applies to our almost equally pervasive obsession with the past (no disrespect to the historians in our midst). Just as we worry about the future, we also have a tendency to worry about the past. Why did I say what I did? Why did I make that decision? Why didn’t I do such and such? If only I had . . . Here, too, worrying about the past takes us away from the present, from being available to experience God’s grace. If anything, if we have messed up in the past (and we all have), we are in need of God’s grace and mercy. But we aren’t going to find it by looking backwards. Sure, we may learn some lessons by looking at what we did in the past. But obsessing about it won’t change things. And it won’t allow for God’s grace to enter in to help ease the pain or frustration or embarrassment. The only way for that to happen is to be in the present, in the here and now, to be present to God, to allow God to give you what you need to help you deal with the past.

But perhaps most important is that living in the present is about formation, about us being shaped and molded and stretched into something new, into a new person that we may not be able to see, but who God surely sees. That’s what living in the present is really all about. It is being open and attentive to what God is doing in our lives in the here and now. It is about allowing God to form us into the persons that God wants us to be, who God is calling us to be. Persons who have past experiences – experiences that were in the present at one time, but which are no longer. Persons formed in the present by the loving hands of God, to be the persons we are called to be in the future.

There is perhaps no greater example of this than Job, from our Old Testament lesson. The Book of Job is often thought to be a story of one man’s struggles. But it is more than that. It is the story of one man’s faith. Job has experienced unimaginable misery in the past. But despite what his friends and his wife tell him, Job does not choose to dwell on what has happened, to renounce God for what has happened. He does not worry about what will happen in the future, to plead with God to make his life better. He stays faithful to God by living in the present. In one of his most famous speeches, recorded in today’s lesson, he says “For I know that my Redeemer lives.” These words are recognition that God is even now active in his life, working to bring redemption, to bring God’s grace and mercy into his life, to form him into the person he is ultimately called to be. And if he focuses on what happened in the past, or worries about the future, he will surely miss the joy of seeing God at work in his life.

When it comes to our dealings with God, with experiencing God in our lives, let us not be like the Sadducees and the Pharisees, worrying about what will happen in the future. Let us not be like Job’s friends, urging him to dwell on what has passed. Let us be like Job, who boldly proclaims out of his experience “I know that my Redeemer lives,” here and now, and that he is working in our lives, in great and subtle ways, forming us to be the people God is ultimately calling us to be. Now that is something not to be missed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Things They Don't Teach You in Seminary 2 (Divine Dumpster Diving)

It never ceases to amaze me what things you are required to do in parish life that they don't teach you about at seminary. Yesterday morning it was dumpster diving! I arrived at the church early to set-up for a meeting I was hosting. In the middle of making coffee and arranging chairs, the Altar Guild Director came in and said she needed my help. Someone had thrown away the flowers from last Sunday. Not normally a problem, but in this case, the flowers were still in a 150 year old silver vase (more of an oblong bowl). I went to the dumpster and the sliver bowl was supposedly buried under several feet of garbage. Using a pole, I was able to pull it up near the surface to a point where I could just barely reach it. Even being tall and having long arms, it was still a little difficult. I did not want to get my clothes dirty, particularly since I was hosting a number of UCLA campus ministers a few minutes later.

Seminaries seem to think they need to teach about silly things like church history, scripture, theology, and liturgy, They really need to get in touch with what really goes on in parish ministry and provide some classes that will be of real use ;-)


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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ruth's Risk

Proper 23 – Year C (Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost)
Ruth 1:(1-7)8-19a; Psalm 113; 2 Timothy 2:(3-7)8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Sunday, October 14, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Recently, I ran across this little bit of literary trivia:

"‘Behold the turtle; he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.’ These words by James Bryant Conant [had] special meaning for writer James Michener. In 1944, when Michener was nearly 40, he was serving in the U.S. Navy on a remote island in the South Pacific. To kill time, he decided to write a book. He knew that the chances of anyone publishing it were practically nil. But he decided to stick his neck out and give it a try. Michener had decided that the book would be a collection of short stories. A friend told him that nobody publishes short stories anymore. Even so, he stuck his neck out and went ahead.

"The book was published and it got few reviews, but Orville Prescott, the book reviewer for The New York Times, reported that he liked the stories. Others decided they liked the book too, and it wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize. Kenneth McKenna, whose job it was to evaluate books for a Hollywood film company, tried to persuade his company to make a movie out of it, but the company decided the book ‘had no dramatic possibilities.’ So McKenna stuck his neck out and brought the book to the attention of composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When Broadway cynics heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein were planning a musical called South Pacific, they guffawed and said, ‘Have you heard about this screwy idea? The romantic lead is gonna be a guy past 50. An opera singer named Ezio Pinza!’" (“Risk”)

South Pacific is generally considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won all of them, including all four awards for acting – the only musical to ever do so. And the 1958 movie version of South Pacific was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one of them.

“You can understand,” said Michener, “why I like people who stick their necks out.”

I think James Michener would have really liked Ruth, the protagonist of today’s Old Testament lesson from the book that bears her name. As we heard in this opening chapter of the book, Ruth was no ordinary woman. She defied the social convention of the culture and time in which she lived to follow Naomi, her mother-in-law, and ultimately, Naomi’s god, the God of Israel. But maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up a little and refresh our memories about this story. For this, we need to start not with Ruth, but with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Naomi was originally from Bethlehem. About ten years before the time of our story, a famine struck Judah. In hopes of surviving, Naomi, her husband, and her two sons moved to Moab, a foreign land. Naomi moved to Moab in search of life, but instead, found only death. At some point following their arrival in Moab, Naomi’s husband died. Normally, Naomi would have been in dire straits. While women had little standing in that day and age, widows had even less. They were completely dependent upon their relatives to take care of them. Fortunately, Naomi had two sons who could take care of her. During their time in Moab, the sons had each married local girls, Ruth and Orpah. But then, just before our story really begins, her two sons also die, leaving three widows – Naomi, who was now completely without means of support and survival, and her two daughters-in-law.

Knowing that she is too old for any man to want to marry her, Naomi has no choice but to return to her homeland, where at least she has relatives who might take pity on her and provide some modicum of support. But Orpah and Ruth have options. They can return to their own families, who will support them. And in due time, they may find other husbands who will support them. Yet, they chose not to exercise that option, choosing instead to follow Naomi. Recognizing the foolishness of such an endeavor, Naomi lays out the facts of life, explaining in a very logical manner that the best thing from these two girls is to go home. Orpah realizes the wisdom in what Naomi counsels, and does indeed return to her parents. Ruth, on the other hand, insists on staying with Naomi. For some unexplained reason, she is governed by love and loyalty rather than by logic. She chooses to forego the security that will be had in her parents’ care in favor of staying with Naomi, someone to whom she is not related, and to whom she owes nothing. She risks herself, her security, and her well-being by going into an alien land. Not to mention that Israel viewed Moab with negative moral and emotional connotations. By going into an alien land whose people view her people with great disgust, Ruth is potentially opening herself to serious danger.

In this defiant act, Ruth demonstrates, what in Hebrew is called hesed – a kindness and loyalty beyond what the law requires – a loving devotion that is above and beyond the call of duty. But, as we find out, her faithfulness and loyalty are not solely to Naomi. As Ruth states in her famous speech of defiance, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth is choosing to give up her identity as a Moabite. More importantly, she is choosing to give up any devotion to the pagan gods of her own people to worship the God of Naomi, the God of Israel. Ruth is not just making a statement of intention. She is making a solemn pledge, evidenced by her words “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” which is the standard form for swearing an oath. Ruth has not only demonstrated hesed, extreme faithfulness and loyalty, to Naomi; she is also swearing her faithfulness and loyalty to God, a god whom she does not even know.

What is interesting is that Ruth’s pledge “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” parallels God’s words which established his covenant with Israel – “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Ruth is choosing to opt into God’s covenant with Israel, to opt into a covenant relationship with this god who is essentially unknown to her. In so doing, Ruth is demonstrating Israel’s ideal of relationship with God – a faithful loyalty and devotion that is above and beyond the call of duty.

To fully understand the implications of what Ruth has done, we need to consider the rest of the story of the book of Ruth. The Reader’s Digest version is that upon arriving in Bethlehem, Ruth meets Boaz, one of Naomi’s relatives. After some subtle seductive moves on Ruth’s part, masterminded by Naomi, Boaz really begins to like Ruth. Naomi then decides to sell her property to Boaz so that she could have some money to live on, while keeping the property in the family. Boaz buys the property, marries Ruth, and they all live happily ever after. Naomi has money to live on. And knowing Ruth, she probably insisted that Naomi come to live with her and Boaz. Ruth has the security of a husband. And Boaz gets an attractive, young wife and another piece of real estate.

As the story opened, things were not looking very rosy for either Naomi or Ruth. Both had lost their husbands and all possible means of support and security. But thanks to Ruth taking a risk, thanks to Ruth acting on the faithfulness she felt toward Naomi, and more importantly, thanks to her faithfulness to God, both women ended up with the security and support they wanted and needed. Because of Ruth’s hesed, her faithfulness and loyalty, to Naomi and to God, everyone involved was blessed.

But the blessings don’t stop there. You see, there’s more to the story. Ruth and Boaz eventually have a son, Obed. Ruth and Boaz allowed Obed to be called Naomi’s son, thereby providing her with a male next-of-kin who could inherit the property she formerly owned, reap its benefits, and provide further assurances of her security. But ultimately, it was not just Ruth and Naomi’s family that were blessed through Obed. Obed eventually had a son named Jesse, who was the father of David, the greatest king in the history of Israel. So the entire nation of Israel was blessed through Ruth’s faithfulness to God. And what’s more, David was an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth, redeemer of the world. So the blessings of Ruth’s faithfulness extend not only to her family, not only to Israel, but to the whole world. We are all blessed by Ruth’s willingness to risk her own security in favor of committing to a faithful relationship with God.

We are created in the image and likeness of God. And this is exemplified in this story. The hesed of Ruth is an image of the hesed of God. This is reflected in Naomi’s comment to her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Naomi recognizes that the hesed Ruth demonstrates is a mirror, an image, of God’s hesed. And in due course, because she risked herself and her security, Ruth lives into that image, thereby becoming a catalyst for blessing, just as God in his hesed, blesses.

This parable is one of faithfulness – both God’s faithfulness and ours. If we are faithful to God, God will be faithful to us. Now I don’t necessarily mean to imply the negative of that – that if we are not faithful to God he will not be faithful to us. I believe that God has the capacity and even the desire to be merciful and faithful to us even when we are not always faithful to him. But what this parable of Ruth illustrates is that if we take a risk, if we don’t obsess about our own security and well-being, but if we instead commit to a faithful relationship with God, we will be blessed beyond our wildest imagination. And that blessing need not be limited to us, but can and does extend beyond us to those around us, often in unknown and unforeseen ways.

To me, there is no better confirmation of this than the numerous stories I am blessed to hear in my capacity as priest and pastor – stories from people who had either consciously or unconsciously turned their back on God, often for reasons unbeknownst to themselves. But then, without exception, when they chose to turn back to God, they find that God is still there, that he is still faithful to them, even when they had not been faithful to him, and that their lives are greatly enriched by that relationship. Unlike human relationships, in our relationships with the Divine, there is only one party who can turn their back, and it’s not God.

When we, like Ruth, dare to risk, dare to turn toward God, we find that God is there, waiting to embrace us with open arms And in our faithfulness to God, we experience first-hand God’s faithfulness to us, through blessings beyond our wildest imaginations. And we may just find that not only are we blessed, but that through God’s hesed, through God’s faithful devotion to us that is above and beyond the call of duty, we may also be a blessing to the world, or at least our own little piece of it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



References

“Risk.” Sermon Illustrations. [http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/r/risk.htm] (12 October 2007).

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Rich Man, Lazarus, and Us

Proper 21 – Year C (Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost)
Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31
Sunday, September 30, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

One day a certain old, rich man of a miserable disposition visited a rabbi, who took the rich man by the hand and led him to a window. “Look out there,” he said. The rich man looked into the street. “What do you see?” asked the rabbi. “I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man. Again the rabbi took him by the hand and this time led him to a mirror. “Now what do you see?” “Now I see myself,” the rich man replied.

Then the rabbi said, “Behold, in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, but you see only yourself” (“Window & Mirror”).


This poignant anecdote aptly illustrates today’s Gospel lesson where Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man in the Gospel has much in common with the rich man and with the mirror in the anecdote. As the rabbi notes, once a piece of glass is covered with a little silver, a person cannot see through the glass, but only sees oneself. Once the man received a covering of silver, of wealth, he could no longer see others, but only himself, his own desires for pleasure and fulfillment. His covering of silver prevented him from seeing other men, women, and children.

So it was with the Rich Man in the Gospel lesson. The lesson paints a vivid portrait of this man’s life of decadence and indulgence – clothed in purple linen, a cloth reserved for the wealthiest Roman citizens; indulging in sumptuous feasts every day. Meanwhile, just outside the gate of his manse lay Lazarus, a poor man suffering from illness and from hunger. Lazarus was so hungry, he would have been ecstatic to eat the scraps that fell from the Rich Man’s table. This is particularly telling, because in that society at that time, the scraps that fell from the table were pieces of bread which were used to wipe ones greasy hands during the meal and then thrown on the floor, usually to be disposed of by the household dogs. In our modern times, that would be like being so hungry that you would be willing to lick the grease and tiny bits of food off a dirty napkin. Not very appetizing, nor very nutritious.

Presumably, based on what follows, the Rich Man had seen Lazarus lying by his gate. He had probably walked by him or ridden by him on horseback or in a chariot numerous times. But not once did he bother to stop to help Lazarus, to give him money, to offer him a bite to eat, to provide medical attention for his sores. No, the Rich Man was so wrapped up in himself and his own concerns, needs, and desires that he saw Lazarus, but did not really see him, certainly not as a fellow human being.

The lesson continues to describe what happens after both men die. Lazarus is taken by an angel to rest in the bosom of Abraham, where he would receive the comfort, care, and consolation that he never had in life. The Rich Man, on the other hand, is relegated to the fiery torment of Hades. But even in death, the Rich Man just doesn’t get it. He still thinks he is a man of wealth and great power, able to order people around to do his bidding, to meet his every need and desire. He has the nerve to ask Abraham if Lazarus might come and dip his finger in water to cool the Rich Man’s tongue. When that is not a viable option, due to the chasm that separates the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man has the audacity to suggest that Lazarus serve as a messenger boy to warn the Rich Man’s five brothers that if they don’t change their ways, they risk the same fate as their brother. Sorry, not an option. Well, at least, for once, the Rich Man was thinking of someone besides himself. But, nonetheless, it was too little, too late.

Before we continue on, I’d like to pause and consider the meaning of this story up to this point. Probably the most commonly held interpretation is what one of our parishioners termed the compensatory nature of the hereafter – that when we die, we are rewarded or punished for how we lived our life. As Abraham says to the Rich Man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” Those who lived the good life, with plenty of wealth and power, with no real cares or burdens to speak of, are destined to, shall we say, a less than pleasurable afterlife. On the other hand, those who, like Lazarus, had an absolutely miserable existence are destined to spend the hereafter in comfort, presumably enjoying the pleasures they were denied in life. A variation of this interpretation is one we have heard several times in the Gospel lessons in previous weeks, most succinctly stated in last week’s Gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Proper 20, Luke 16:13). And if you opt for serving wealth over God, you will be sorry in the hereafter. But I would like to offer a different interpretation – one based on relationship – the relationship between the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the relationship between God and humanity.

Remember the similarities between the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the anecdote about the window and the mirror? In both cases, the rich men were so wrapped up in themselves, in their wealth and power, in their lives of decadence and self-indulgence, that they could see no one but themselves. They were only concerned with their own goals and desires, to the exclusion of all else, to the exclusion of everyone else. This is beautifully illustrated in a story about Catherine Booth, wife of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army:

"Wherever Catherine Booth went,” said G. Campbell Morgan, “humanity went to hear her. Princes and peeresses merged with paupers and prostitutes.” One night, Morgan shared in a meeting with Mrs. Booth; and a great crowd of “publicans and sinners” was there. Her message brought many to Christ. After the meeting, Morgan and Mrs. Booth went to be entertained at a fine home; and the lady of the manor said, “My dear Mrs. Booth, that meeting was dreadful.”

“What do you mean, dearie?” asked Mrs. Booth.

“Oh, when you were speaking, I was looking at those people opposite to me. Their faces were so terrible, many of them. I don’t think I shall sleep tonight!”

“Why, dearie, don’t you know them?” Mrs. Booth asked; and the hostess replied, “Certainly not!”

“Well, that is interesting,” Mrs. Booth said. “I did not bring them with me from London; they are your neighbors!” (“Catherine Booth”).

One of the two great commandments that Jesus gave us is “you shall love your neighbor has yourself.” The Rich Man failed to live according to this commandment. He not only failed to live that commandment, he was so absorbed with his own desires that he failed to even recognize that he had any neighbors. Maybe that’s a little unfair. But at the very least, if he did know that he had neighbors, he certainly failed to recognize that his neighbors included all his fellow human beings, even one such as Lazarus. I think this is the sin of the Rich Man, the reason he was condemned to spend all eternity in fiery torment. Not because he was rich, but because he failed to recognize who his neighbors were and thereby failed to treat them with any semblance of compassion, let alone love them.

By being so self-absorbed, by failing to recognize and care for his neighbor, the Rich Man not only separated himself from his fellow human beings – which, frankly, because of his self-absorption and sense of self-worth and even self-aggrandizement, he was probably glad to do. By separating himself from and lacking concern for his neighbor, the Rich Man effectively succeeded in separating himself from God. In the Scriptures, we hear time and again that God loves justice and mercy, that God favors the poor, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the prisoner. One way that we love God is to care about what God cares about. One way that we love God is to care for those whom God cares for. To do otherwise separates us from God. And that’s just what the Rich Man did throughout his lifetime.

This relational separation from God is vividly illustrated in the Gospel lesson in the very physical separation of the chasm. The spiritual and relational separation experienced in life is translated into a physical, geographical separation in the hereafter. In the case of the Rich Man, this separation, this chasm, is so great, so vast, that it cannot be traversed.

Now what does all of this mean for us? When I ponder such questions in light of Scripture, I find it helpful to try to identify with the characters in the particular story. Then, based on which character I can most identify with, I am able to begin understanding what the story is saying to me. So, in this story, who do you most identify with? The Rich Man or Lazarus? Not an easy choice, is it? In all honesty, very few of us can really identify with Lazarus. Very few of us have experienced the type of suffering and ostracism that Lazarus did. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, particularly in our contemporary culture, I would venture that most of us come closer to identifying with the Rich Man. Certainly we are not as extreme as the Rich Man. But along the spectrum between the Rich Man and Lazarus, most of us we are probably closer to the Rich Man’s end of the scale.

But I don’t necessarily believe that in this case we are meant to try to identify with either the Rich Man or Lazarus. I tend to think that we are meant to identify more with the Rich Man’s brothers. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to go and warn his brothers, a proposal which Abraham soundly rejects. After all, the brothers have Moses and the prophets, the teachings of Scripture to guide them. It is their choice whether they decide to follow the teachings of Scripture or not. Even a magical appearance by a dead person such as Lazarus would not be sufficient proof to one who chooses not to follow what is written. They are either going to be inclined to follow Scripture on their own volition, or they aren’t. Nothing is going to change that.

We have the same choice as the Rich Man’s brothers. We have the same opportunity for redemption that they had. They had the Law and the Prophets, the words of Scripture to guide them, as do we. But we have one thing they didn’t have. We have proof of God’s love and of God’s mercy, provided through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This appearance of a dead man was not meant as a sign that we should do what God wants, but a gift from God, providing a sign that no matter who we are, be we Rich Men or be we Lazaruses, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are saved. But we still have to play our part. We can choose to look into the mirror and see only ourselves, thereby missing the gift God offers us. Or we can look through the window, and see men, women, and children, our neighbors, be they rich or poor, powerful or weak, who reflect back to us the image of the Risen Christ, who reflect back to us the image and likeness of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

“Window & Mirror.” FunnySermons: Sermon Illustrations and Anecdotes. [http://funnysermons.com/content/view/1350/56/]. (27 September 2007).

“Catherine Booth.” NETBible, Sermon Illustrations, Topic: Neighbor. [http://net.bible.org/illustration.php?topic=943]. (27 September 2007).


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Monday, September 10, 2007

Things They Don't Teach You in Seminary

There are some things they just don’t teach you in seminary. One of them is how to put out fires – real fires, not the figurative type (which they do try to teach you). This afternoon I was at the church for a meeting of the Canterbury Westwood Foundation Board. Right before the meeting started, I was on my way to my office to try calling a board member who was not there but whom I knew to be on campus. As I walked down the hall, I looked out the door at the end of the hall, which leads out into the parking lot. I saw that there at the end of the parking lot, our trash dumpster was in flames. Apparently, some painters who were doing work in the building put some trash in the dumpster. According to a passer-by, someone then walked by and tossed a cigarette in the dumpster, lighting the paint soaked papers on fire. I went into the work room and got the fire extinguisher and went out to try to put the fire out. I tried several times, but every time I thought the flames were out, the fire would come back. After exhausting the contents of the extinguisher, the painters got the hose out and did a bucket brigade carrying water to put on the fire. After a couple of minutes, the fire department showed up and used their equipment and water tanks to put the fire out for good (apparently someone in the neighborhood saw the flames and called them). All turned out well and we got it in time before the fire spread to the adjacent bushes, which could have been disastrous for both the church and the surrounding houses.

Just another quiet day at your local Episcopal parish. But I suppose I need to call the Dean at Seabury and have him revise the curriculum to include Firefighting 101 in the course offerings.


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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jesus' Legal Fine Print

Proper 18 – Year C
(Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33
Sunday, September 9, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

In our litigation-happy society, we are inundated with legal fine print. It pervades virtually every aspect of our lives, notifying us of what we are entitled to and what we are not entitled to, and making us aware of our responsibilities. You can find such fine print in legal documents for such major purchases as a house or a car. When you go to the doctor’s office, you are required to read and sign legal documents that acknowledge your rights and responsibilities, while waiving other rights. Now a days, even things we don’t necessarily think of as legal documents contain fine print. Next time you go to the grocery store and use a coupon for 25 cents off the price of a can of tuna, take a look at the coupon. There is fine print that says the coupon has no inherent cash value, that it can only be used on the specified brand and size of the product, and that you only get the savings if you use it by a particular date. Many products that you purchase even have legal fine print. Because of the increase among people who have allergic reactions to nuts, you often find a statement on many product labels that the product was processed using equipment that was also used to manufacture foods containing peanuts or other tree nuts. Some of the legal fine print we encounter may even seem a little over the top, stating the obvious. A number of years ago, a woman successfully sued MacDonald’s when she was burned by a cup of coffee. Now, cups of coffee purchased at MacDonald’s contain a statement that the cup contains hot liquid – Duh!


Yes, legal fine print is nearly everywhere. You might, therefore, not be surprised that the Church is no exception. When you’re baptized, you agree to the Baptismal Covenant which outlines your rights and responsibilities as a member of the Body of Christ. If you’re married, you took certain vows that define what is expected of you and what your responsibilities are in relating to your spouse. There are parts of Scripture that are, for all intents and purposes, entirely legal fine print, such as the Ten Commandments, not to mention such Old Testament books as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which contain much of the Jewish Law. These are all sort of obvious. But what many people don’t realize is that Jesus imparted his own legal fine print on would-be followers. And that’s what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke – the legal fine print that Jesus says we must agree to in order to be his followers.

Let’s take a look. In this passage, Jesus lays out three explicit requirements for would-be followers. The first is that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (v. 26). This is a pretty harsh requirement, particularly coming from a man often referred to as the Prince of Peace, a man who preached a message of love. Jesus’ ethic of love makes it unthinkable that anyone should hate his or her own family. So how, then, can Jesus require such a thing? Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper gives us a little bit of a reprieve on this one, although not much. Culpepper notes that this appears to be a case of “Semitic hyperbole that exaggerates a contrast so that it can be seen more clearly. [The term translated as] ‘Hate’ does not mean anger or hostility. [Rather] it indicates that if there is a conflict, one’s response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over even the most sacred of human relationships” (Culpepper, 292). This interpretation is corroborated by examining the comparable passage in Matthew (10:37), where Jesus speaks of loving him more than one’s family. While this interpretation does soften the tone a bit, Jesus’ message is undeniable. There is no greater duty than commitment to Jesus and to being one of his followers. Commitment to following Jesus trumps one’s sense of obligation to one’s own family, even one’s own sense of self-preservation. This does not mean that you have to give up your family. But if you chose to follow Jesus, and if a situation requires that you choose between family or Jesus, Jesus wins out. Are we willing to make that kind of commitment?

The second condition Jesus places on would-be followers is that “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v. 27). In everyday life, use of the term “taking up your cross” or someone having “a cross to bear” generally means having some sort of personal burden or private suffering – one that generally is carried and endured against one’s will, but also which is generally done privately, silently, without complaint. In the context of Jesus’ legal fine print, bearing a cross has nothing to do with illness, physical condition, economic hardship, etc. It is rather what we voluntarily do as a consequence of our commitment to Christ – deliberate sacrifice, exposure to risk. Placed in the context of Jesus life, this section of Scripture occurs as Jesus has already set his face toward Jerusalem, to his death on the cross. Put quite bluntly, this condition means that the would-be follower of Jesus must be willing to suffer the same fate as he did. Now a days, not too many people are put to death because of their faith. But there are certainly still times and places in our society where a crucifixion of sorts does occur. People are still belittled, jeered at, mocked, even physically attacked, because of their faith. Even in the absence of such conditions, taking up one’s cross means living as Jesus lived – bearing the pain and suffering of the world, and doing what one can to alleviate that pain and suffering. Namely, this takes the form of acts of charity, working to house the homeless, clothe the naked, free the prisoner, and working for justice and mercy among those who are downtrodden by our society. Are we willing to endure potential injury and insult, or at least a little inconvenience by going out of our way to help the other, so that we might be able to call ourselves Jesus’ followers?

The third condition Jesus places on would-be followers is that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33). Now that’s a biggy! Sure, being willing to giving up your family and being willing to take up your cross to follow Jesus are massive requirements. But as we’ve just established, the first two conditions are not 100 percent certain. What Jesus appears to have been saying is that you don’t have to give up family or take up the cross right off the bat, but rather need to be prepared to do those things if push comes to shove, if your discipleship comes into conflict with other obligations or with the ways of the world. But giving up all your possessions?

That is certainly not an easy requirement to live with. But I don’t think Jesus was asking us to live in a state of poverty, either. I think this piece of legal fine print has some wiggle room in it, just like the other two conditions. According to Biblical scholar Gail O’Day, what Jesus is really saying is that “one must be willing to say farewell to everything that stands as an obstacle to full and faithful discipleship” (O’Day, 43). The reality is that in our contemporary society, it is very hard to get along without any possessions – not impossible, but certainly not easy. Based on the intent of the first two conditions, I would tend to agree with O’Day’s interpretation. We must be willing to set aside those things, no matter what they are, that interfere with our carrying out our calling to be faithful disciples. If you can do it while retaining your possessions, more power to you. But when the care and maintenance of possessions takes priority over the work that Jesus has called us to, then all bets are off. At that point, maybe it’s time to revisit the provisions of the third condition. Are we willing, even able, to set aside our concern for material stuff, the stuff that gives us great comfort, to engage in the often messy, uncomfortable work that Jesus asks of us?

Inserted between the second and third conditions of Jesus’ legal fine print are two parables – one about making preparations to build a tower, and the other about a king preparing for battle against another king with a larger army. Both of these parables examine the wisdom of mature decision-making. Both lead to the conclusion that a reasonable person would not undertake a task without being sure that it could be finished. O’Day notes that these parables, “framed by Jesus’ words on discipleship, counsel that the decision for discipleship must be a highly intentional matter” (O’Day, 44). Given the conditions, the legal fine print Jesus lays out, one should not enter into the decision to follow Jesus lightly. After all, if we do, we may be faced with tough situations. We may be forced to, and, by accepting the call to discipleship, need to be willing to give up anything that stands in the way of that calling – family, possessions, dignity, our very lives. As Alan Culpepper notes, “God has not entered into a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set us face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus” (Culpepper, 292).

This section of scripture demonstrates absolute transparency in what Jesus is trying to do. In these words, we can rest assured that Jesus is not trying to lure unsuspecting people to discipleship. He warns us in advance that the way of discipleship will not be easy. His “intent is to urge persons who are seeking to be disciples to consider first the demands of discipleship” (Culpepper, 292). The decision is ours. And then, if we still are willing to sign on, he will accept us with open arms.

The good news in all of this legal fine print is not so much what is written, but rather what is not specifically written, what is implied. While the legal fine print discusses what is expected of the would-be follower of Jesus, nowhere does it say that success is required. Jesus is not asking for an absolute guarantee from us that we will be able to follow through with what he asks, for our promise that we will be able to get it right. In fact, he knows that we will not get it right. All Jesus asks is that we try. What he is asking for is a commitment – a fully-informed commitment, a commitment fully made. That commitment is not to a way of life filled with loneliness and poverty, or a commitment to a seemingly hopeless or impossible goal. Rather, it is a commitment to a person – to Jesus. Jesus calls us to be his disciples. A disciple does not follow a cause or a goal. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life (Culpepper, 293). That is what Jesus promises us. By committing to follow him, Jesus promises to lead us to a new way of life, to eternal life. As today’s passage, the fine print, reveals, the way may not be easy. Jesus never promised that it would be. In fact, he is quite up front about what may be required. All he asks is that we enter into our commitment to him fully are of what we may be getting ourselves into, that we do so whole-heartedly, and that we try our best. But he also promises that, in the end, the journey will be worth it.


In closing, I leave you with one final thought by Alan Culpepper that sums up today’s lesson. “The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted” (Culpepper, 294).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

O’Day, Gail R. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.



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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith: Moving from Head to Heart

Proper 14 – Year C
(Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost)
Gen 15:1-6; Ps 33:12-15, 18-22; Heb 11:1-3, 8-16; Lk 12:32-40
Sunday, August 12, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

I grew up listening to folk music. Even today, those old folk songs are among my favorites. Their simple, often whimsical lyrics convey some of the most profound truths about life. A week and a half ago, I set out on vacation, heading to New Mexico. As I drove across the desert, somewhere in eastern California or Arizona, I put on a CD of music by the Kingston Trio, a folk group popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Quite appropriate to the surroundings, as well as to the subject for this sermon that was bubbling in my subconscious, I was treated to an old favorite entitled “Desert Pete.” Based on a true story, the song tells of a man traveling on a very long and seldom-used trail across Nevada’s Amargosa Desert. The song goes like this:


I was travelin’ west of Buckskin on my way to a cattle run, ‘cross a little cactus desert under a hard blisterin’ sun. I was thirsty down to my toenails, stopped to rest me on a stump, but I tell you I just couldn't believe it when I saw that water pump. I took it to be a mirage at first. It'll fool a thirsty man. Then I saw a note stuck in a bakin' powder can. “This pump is old,” the note began, “but she works, so give 'er a try. I put a new sucker washer in ‘er. You may find the leather dry.”

“Yeah, you’ll have to prime the pump, work that handle like there’s a fire. Under that rock you’ll find some water I left in a bitters jar. Now there’s just enough to prime it with, so don’t you go drinkin’ first. Ya’ just pour it in and pump like mad and, buddy, you’ll quench your thirst.”

Well, I found that jar, and I tell you, nothin’ was ever prettier to my eye and I was tempted strong to drink it because that pump looked mighty dry. But the note went on, “Have faith, my friend, there’s water down below. You’ve got to give until you get. I’m the one who ought to know.”

So I poured in the jar and I started pumpin’ and I heard a beautiful sound of water bubblin’ ‘n splashin’ up out of that hole in the ground. Then I took off my shoes and drunk my fill of that cool refreshin’ treat. Then I thanked the Lord, and I thanked the pump, and I thanked old Desert Pete.

The chorus, interspersed through the song, goes:

You’ve got to prime the pump. You must have faith and believe. You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive. Drink all the water you can hold. Wash your face, cool your feet. But leave the bottle full for others. Thank ya’ kindly, Desert Pete.

Like the chorus says, this is a song of faith and of hope – “You must have faith and believe.” In the song, the cowboy is asked to have faith in some unknown person called Desert Pete. And he is asked to have faith in the presence of abundant, live-giving water below the desert – water that this mysterious Desert Pete claims will be delivered through an old, dry pump. Now why should the cowboy believe this note? Why should he put his faith in such unlikely odds?

Our Scripture readings today all deal with the nature of faith. The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews begins “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). While this is one of the most familiar pieces of Scripture, it is also one of the most obscure to the modern reader (Boyce, 24). In some ways, this statement about the nature of faith defies logic. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to our rational minds. According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” How then, if we are to believe the writer of Hebrews, can faith, by its very definition, be an “assurance of things hoped for,” or a “conviction of things not seen?” This dilemma is particularly difficult when you consider that the word in this Scripture passage translated as “conviction” (elenkos) more accurately means proof or demonstration. Therefore, according to Hebrews, faith is proof of the unseen (Craddock, 131). How can faith be proof?

Biblical scholar James Boyce offers some insight into this apparent incongruity between our understanding of faith and our understandings of assurance, conviction, and proof. He notes that the “common translation [of faith] in terms of personal ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’ masks an underlying worldview that assumes what is ‘not seen’ and only ‘hoped for’ is for that reason more real than this world of experience” (Boyce, 24). He goes on to explain that in the worldview of the writer, the assurance to be had is that the reality of God and all that God promises us “stands contrasted with the corruptible, shadowy, and merely prototypical character of this present world” (Boyce, 25). As a result of the Enlightenment, we tend to think of what is real as that which we can observe or measure through our senses or through scientific method. God cannot be directly observed through our senses or measured using scientific methodologies. Therefore, from a purely scientific perspective, we cannot be certain whether or not God exists. For those of us who do believe in God, the matter gets relegated to the area of faith. God is someone we believe in, whom we trust exists and operates in the world, even though we cannot prove it using science. Hence, to put it very simply and to purposefully create a dichotomy where one need not necessarily exist, existence in our worldview is divided into the real – that which can be observed scientifically – and the realm of faith – that which is beyond (quote) “reality.”

To the ancients, to the founders of our religious traditions, to those who wrote our Scriptures, the world looked very different. To them, the world that they could observe around them was not the ultimate reality. The world to be observed was a merely a shadowy, incomplete, imperfect reflection of reality. To them, reality was God and the kingdom of heaven. Hence, their writing reflected this worldview and their understanding. They firmly believed in the reality of God and the kingdom of heaven, and their definition of faith reflected that reality. What we are given in the passage from Hebrews was, for them, a working definition of faith – not theoretical or philosophical, but the truth about faith drawn from Israel’s own experience (O’Day, 19).

So how do we deal with the fact that we are dealing with two, diametrically opposed, worldviews? This is a struggle with which I am all too familiar. Coming out of an engineering background, I tend to operate in the realm of the observable, to operate on an analytical level, to operate in my head. This is the prevailing view of most of our contemporary society. But what the Scriptures challenges us to do is to move from our heads to our hearts – to see reality not as our post-Enlightenment society says it is, but to see it as the ancients saw it – to see that reality, our ultimate reality, is not in that which we can observe or measure through scientific method, but that which we know by faith – that the kingdom of God is our true reality. As biblical scholar Gail O’Day notes, “Faith is the conviction that the course of our lives is neither to be limited nor determined by what we are able to see. The way into God’s future is to live the present in the conviction and assurance of faith” (O’Day, 19). “To live ‘by faith’ is to live in readiness for the unpredictable arrival of God’s grace” (O’Day, 22). To live in this way, according to Fred Craddock, “strongly involves the quality of human embrace and trust and tenacity” (Craddock, 131) – to tenaciously embrace God and trust that what God promises is the ultimate reality to which we are called.

How we make the move from head to heart is going to be different for each of us. For me, one of the best ways I have found to make that transition is to get away to some place where I can just be alone with God. That’s part of what my recent vacation in New Mexico was about – just making time to be with God. I find that when I’m in the city, I tend to feel bombarded by the extensive visual and auditory stimuli that seem to constantly surround us in a place like Los Angeles. I find that with so much stimuli that needs processing, I spend an awful lot of time in my head, taking in what I’m seeing and hearing, and then analyzing and critiquing what I observe. I find that getting away from all of this, particularly to quiet places like the desert allows me to move out of my head and into my heart. I’m able to reduce the amount of thinking, analyzing, and critiquing that I do, and be more in touch with what I’m feeling and with my spirit. And that’s where I feel more connected with God – when I’m in my heart, more so than when I’m in my head. I feel a lightness in my spirit that allows it to touch God and be in communion with him. My spirit soars on the winds and sings a song of praise to God.

I felt this most profoundly while visiting Santuario de Chimay√≥, a church in a small village about half an hour north of Santa Fe. This place, referred to as “Lourdes of the Southwest,” is visited by numerous pilgrims drawn by the alleged healing powers of the “miraculous dirt” found in a side chapel. As I sat in the church, praying for healing, for myself and for various parishioners here at St. Alban’s, I was very much aware of God’s presence in that place. I could not explain it with my head, but I certainly felt it in my heart and in my spirit. I was amazed at how easily I seemed to be able to connect with God while I was there. On the drive back to Santa Fe, I reflected on the experience and realized that when I’m home, I almost have to fight myself to connect with God. There is so much “stuff” running through my mind that when I pray, I have to fight through all that stuff to make room for God, to get through to God, to allow God to get through to me. But when I just allowed myself to be in the presence of God, resting in my heart, I found that God was already there waiting for me. By going into my heart, by seeing in faith, I was able to see beyond the alleged reality of this world and to see the ultimate reality which is to be had in communion with God.

In his commentary, Fred Craddock discusses how the remainder of the reading from Hebrews, which talks about the faith of Abraham as he and his family traveled to the Promised Land, is a “reflection on the life of faith as that of an alien sojourner.” We are traveling in a foreign land, not permanent residents, but sojourners, residing in tents, always on the move, always looking ahead to the permanent home promised by God, to that home where God is the foundation. He notes that “It becomes more apparent in this narrative that faith is forward looking, oriented toward the future, trusting that God will keep promises made to those who believe. In other words, faith and hope are one, and life is pilgrimage” (Craddock, 135).

According to the writer of Hebrews, we are on a pilgrimage, traveling through this shadowy, imperfect world, destined for the real world promised by God. That was a challenging enough venture when Hebrews was written nearly 2,000 years ago. But in this post-Enlightenment age, we have the added challenge of shifting our perspective, of moving from trying to see the journey and its destination in our heads, to seeing with our hearts, to seeing in faith that which the world cannot see but that which is our ultimate reality. Only then will we truly know that faith is indeed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Boyce, James L. Proclamation 6: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series C Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1997.

Craddock, Fred B. “The Letter to the Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. XI of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

O’Day, Gail. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series C Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

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