Friday, December 31, 2010

Feast of Your Holy Name

New Year’s Eve Vigil / Holy Name
Numbers 6.22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
Friday, December 31, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

In September of 1974, I began a trip down the slippery slope of multiple identities. No, I wasn’t trying to evade the law. I was beginning intermediate school and was immediately confronted with the issue of my identity. Up to that point, I had always gone by my middle name. But intermediate school would be different. It was a lot bigger than elementary school, and there were multiple classes to attend. Class registration information was computerized and the class rolls for all six of my classes said I was Michael Fincher. So, on day one of intermediate school, I had to decide how to deal with my identity. Do I go through the hassle of correcting six teachers and who knows how many administrators and run the risk of things getting all confusing because Michael wanted to be called Kevin, or do I just make life easier on everyone else and agree to be called Michael? I opted for the latter, and from that moment on, assumed dual identities – Kevin in family situations, and Michael in school and other public situations.

Things got even more complicated as time went by, so that the contexts in which I was known by one name or the other had changed and, in some cases, blurred together. At times, I can’t even keep track of who some people know me as. But what I have discovered is that, even though I am the same person and am used to going by two different names, those names seem to convey separate identities. This is very apparent to me on those rare occasions when those who know Kevin intersected with those who know Michael. It just doesn’t sound or feel right when someone who knows me as Kevin tries to call me Michael, or vice versa. It is in those moments that I am most aware that a name is more than a descriptor to identify an individual, but actually conveys some sense of identity. This was reinforced when a parishioner and I were recently talking about names and he said that I am definitely a Michael and not a Mike. The identity conveyed by “Michael” was more in keeping with who he perceived me to be, whereas “Mike” did not.

The understanding of names and naming practices varies greatly by culture. Some cultures name children after living relatives or ancestors. Others prefer to use names from the Bible. In other cultures, the parents indicate their hopes for the child’s future or the qualities they hope the child will possess in the name they give. But suffice it to say that most parents, regardless of culture, give great thought to, even agonize over, just the right name for their newborns. Such is the importance of name.

And some cultures even use the addition or change of name to mark some significant events. For example, it is not uncommon for Roman Catholics on the occasion of baptism or confirmation to add a new middle name, that of a favored saint. My guess is that the name is intended to convey some quality of the saint the person hopes to emulate in his or her new life. More obvious is the practice in some monastic orders that when a monk or nun professes life vows, he or she takes on a new name, generally that of a saint, as a sign of renunciation of the former way of life and the establishment of a new identity within the monastic community. Yet again, the importance of name as an indication of identity.

This evening, we commemorate the Feast of the Holy Name, which is tomorrow. As stated in the last verse of our Gospel reading, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 2.21). In the Jewish tradition, while the mother gives birth, it is the father who names the child at the ceremony of circumcision, which happens on the eighth day following the child’s birth. In the act of naming, the father gives a sign that the child belongs to him, is a member of his family and an heir to the family’s legacy. Now in the case of Jesus, we have a slight anomaly. It is not Joseph who chose the baby’s name. Remember that it was an angel who announced to Joseph that the child would be called Jesus. So, it was really God who named his son. Joseph was merely serving as a proxy in the naming ceremony.

But in reality, Jesus was doubly blessed. He received, in a way, a double identity, at his naming. God had chosen the name Jesus. Therefore, in naming his son, God had made the sign that this child was indeed his son, of whom God would later proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.13). But in making the public proclamation of the child’s name, Joseph was taking on the earthly role of father, proclaiming that Jesus was his son, and that he would raise him as his own – caring for him, protecting him, guiding him into manhood.

So in this naming ceremony, Jesus effectively received two identities – that conferred by his true father and the one who gave him the name Jesus, the identity as the son of God, Messiah-to-be; and that conferred by Joseph his human father, as Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter-to-be. In this naming ceremony, Jesus received his identity as being both fully divine and fully human. And in this naming ceremony, an indication of his purpose was revealed, for the meaning of the name Jesus is “God has saved.” So in Jesus’ case, the naming ceremony we commemorate conveys a wealth of information about who this child is.

Most of us probably did not go through any type of elaborate naming ceremony. Chances are, when we were born, a nurse asked our parents what our name was to be, and that is what showed up on our birth certificate. No pomp and circumstance involved; although, considerable thought probably went into the name selection prior to our birth. Nonetheless, that name conferred on us at the time of our birth became our identity and will continue to define who we are for the rest of our life.

But as Christians, most of us do eventually participate in ritual that is specifically intended to signify, establish, and proclaim an identity – the sacrament of baptism. In this sacrament, we are named and marked as Christ’s own forever. As we go through the rite of baptism, we recognize that our identity is changed. We renounce our own sinfulness. We turn to Jesus Christ, putting our trust in his grace and love, promising to follow and obey him. As we go into the water of baptism, we die to self, to our old way of life, to our old identity. As we rise out of the water, we put our past behind us and are born to a new and eternal life, to new identity, in Christ. And then the community welcomes us into the household of God – both the Body of Christ of which we are now a part, and the local faith community where our life as a new Christian continues to be formed, where we continue to live out our calling as Christian.

Through the sacrament of baptism, through our incorporation into this faith tradition, we are effectively given a new name. By accepting us into the Body of Christ, into his body, Jesus shares his name with us. Through him, we are given the name Christian. And just as in the Jewish tradition, in the act of being by and for him, Christ who gives us that name is giving a sign that we belong to him, that we are a member of his family and an heir to his legacy. And equally important is the fact that the name conferred upon us, that of Christian, conveys something of our identity – a very important part of our identity. That identity is that we promise to live in accordance with God’s laws and Christ’s teachings. And that identity carries with it the promise that God through Jesus Christ will care for us, and that we are heirs to his kingdom.

While it may only be coincidental that the Feast of the Holy Name happens to be New Year’s Day, maybe there is a lesson to be had in this timing nonetheless. At this time of year, as we prepare to say farewell to the old year and welcome in a new one, many people make resolutions for changes or betterment in the new year. Maybe the only resolution that is needed or is of any real importance is to be true to that identity extending from the Feast of the Holy Name. On this day, Jesus was given his name, establishing his identity. And he has shared his name with us, thereby sharing his and establishing our identity. If we live up to that, no other resolutions are needed and everything else should take care of itself.

Happy New Year and Blessed Feast of your Holy Name.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

"Pleased as Man with Us to Dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel"

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Friday, December 24, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“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 the Messiah, the Lord.”

Tonight, in these words from the angel to the shepherds, we move from Advent into Christmas. We move from the season of anticipation and preparation into the season of receiving that which we have been anticipating and preparing. And that can be summed up in one word – Emmanuel – “God with us.”

This year, the image of Emmanuel that has been with me throughout Advent is from “Hark the Harold Angels Sing,” which we just sang. The last line of the second verse is “Pleased as man with us to dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel!” That line has been running around in my head for weeks now. Emmanuel. And not just God with us, but God who is “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” That makes a huge difference.

It is precisely this concept of Emmanuel that is the basis for our faith tradition and for the event that we celebrate this night. Ours is a unique religion. From the days of Abraham and Sarah, ours has been a religion based on reciprocal relationship between God and humanity. Our Judeo-Christian heritage is based on a covenant relationship established between God and his Chosen People – that Yahweh would be our God and we would be his people. And the amazing thing is that it was not we who first sought to be in relationship with God, but rather it was God who reached out to us. It was God who initiated this relationship.

Of course, salvation history shows that we have not done a great job of upholding our end of the relationship. We have not held to our part of the covenant with God. The covenant was continually broken, not by God, but by us. And yes, we had to bear the consequences of this disobedience. But just as we continually broke the covenant, God continually reached out to reestablish the covenant, to renew the relationship. Why? Despite our inability to maintain the covenant, God was not willing to abandon us. Despite our inability to remain faithful to God and to love him, God continues to be faithful to us and to love us.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. Even so, it’s just too hard for us to relate to an entity that we cannot see or touch or embrace. We just can’t really relate to a God that is generally unseen, or a God who speaks through angelic messengers and prophets, or a God that takes the form of a burning bush or a pillar of smoke. We humans need face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh relationship. After us repeatedly breaking the covenant and God repeatedly taking us back, it became clear that a more direct way of relating between God and his people was needed. Like any successful relationship, we needed common ground. There’s no way we could become more like God, but God could become more like us. God could become flesh, become human like us.

That is what this night is all about. In God becoming incarnate, through the child born this night, a great mystery has occurred. In the mystery that is God, the Son of God is at the same time God, yet even more. This child is fully divine, as is God, but is also fully human, as is Mary his mother. A mystery that is difficult for us to wrap our minds around, yet a mystery that is so crucial to this night. For in the child born this night, the incomparable glory of God – limitless, powerful, majestic – comes together with the ordinariness of humanity – limited, weak, humble.

In the mystery that is the Incarnation, God was able to become someone we can see and touch and embrace. And in so doing, God was able to experience life as we do, complete with the same limitations that we do – someone who is born, who grows up, who ultimately dies; someone who can share our joys, our excitement, our wonderment; and who can experience our pain, our frustrations, our longings, our disappointments, our vulnerabilities, our hurts, our losses. In coming as a child, God chose to be as those he came to be with – innocent and vulnerable. This is the meaning of Emmanuel. God with us, sharing life as we know it – the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – sharing our experiences, being one of us. “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” This was something that God was willing to do precisely because he continues to be faithful to us and to love us. That is what this night is about – celebrating that moment 2,000 years ago when God, in his infinite love for us, ceased being somewhere out there and became Emmanuel, right here in our midst, in the form of a child.

Despite being God, being the King of Kings, this was not a child born in the splendor of a spacious, elegant palace surrounded by royal attendants and nursemaids, clothed in the finest silk, laid in a soft, comfortable crib. On the contrary, this son of God was born in a stable surrounded by smelly animals and animal waste, wrapped in rags, and laid in a feeding trough. For only in this way, could God have the opportunity to experience the true essence of humanity – the commonness and ordinariness. Not as the scion of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, but as the ward of a poor laborer. Not as someone secure, facing a life of ease; but as someone vulnerable, facing uncertainty, even difficulty. Only in this way could he experience the hardship that so many of God’s people face. Only in this way could he experience the most basic of human needs and wants. Only in this way could he experience the true joys of human existence. Only in this way could he be able to relate to common everyday folk like you and me.

In this child, God obtained the experience of what it means to be human. And humanity gained a far greater gift. In this child, humanity is touched by the divine in a way that has not been possible until now. In this child, the divine is made flesh and the baseness of humanity is made sacred. In this child, the divine becomes, for a time, bound by human experience, while the experience of humanity is poised to burst forth with limitless possibilities as the Spirit of the divine energizes and comes to dwell within each of us.

In this child, Emmanuel, the world, and the entire fate of humanity is forever changed as the child grows into an adult, submitting himself to death on a cross for the salvation of all humanity. No, even on this most beautiful of nights, we cannot ignore the fate of this child, the primary reason for his coming among us. For in this child, Emmanuel, is the hope of the world – the hope for the salvation and new and eternal life that his birth promises for each and every one of us.

All of this is only made possible through the experience of Emmanuel – God with us. All of this is only possible because of a God who is “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” God who is WITH each and every one of us. God who came FOR each and every one of us. You couldn’t ask for a more precious gift.

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Our Need for Wilderness

Sunday of Advent – Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Sunday, December 5, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

As we continue our journey through Advent we find ourselves in the wilderness with John the Baptist. In this journey, it is significant that we find ourselves in the presence of this interesting and colorful character. John has a pivotal role in Judeo-Christian theology and prophecy. He is a bridge between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. He is, at the same time, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets. As an Old Testament prophet, John looks backward, reminding us of what it means to be God’s Chosen People, reminding us of the prophecies about a new king of the line of David who will come and save God’s Chosen People and usher in a new kingdom as described in today’s reading from Isaiah. As a New Testament prophet, John looks forward, pointing the way to the one who will fulfill the prophecy – Jesus, the Word made flesh. As such, John the Baptist is the iconic figure for the season of Advent. In looking backward, he brings the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah to the fore. And in looking forward, he points to the preparation needed to receive this Messiah.

The description we have of John is one of a wild-eyed, crazy man. He wears a garment made of camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. And he is out in the middle of nowhere shouting the words of the Prophet Isaiah, issuing warnings that people need to repent of their sins and be baptized, and accosting people with such unsavory epithets as “you brood of vipers.” If we saw such a character on the street, which you certainly do in some places, many of us would cross the street to the other side out of a sense of personal safety.

For first century Jews, however, the image of this man and the style and content of his preaching would have been reminiscent of the Prophet Elijah, one of the greatest and most revered of the Jewish prophets. As Elijah never died but was taken up to heaven by God, perhaps this was Elijah returned. Such a possibility would have added weight and credibility to what John was preaching, even if it did sound like the ravings of a lunatic at times. Of course, this side of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, we know the whole story. We are able to see the significance of John the Baptist in ways that his first century hearers would not have been able to. We see that he was indeed the one who would prepare the world and us for the coming of our Messiah.

So too is it significant that we find ourselves in the wilderness on this second Sunday of Advent. Certainly John’s message of repentance is important, but I think the place the message was proclaimed is also of importance, for several reasons.

First, John did not do his preaching in the town square, not in the Temple precinct in Jerusalem, where there would have been a lot of passers-by to hear his message. Rather, he chose to proclaim his message out in the wilderness. Out in the wilderness, it would have been easy to ignore John’s preaching. But Matthew tells us that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going to him.” The fact that so many people from all over the country made the effort to go into the wilderness – for some, undoubtedly a long and arduous, possibly even hazardous, journey – is an indication that people were looking for something, longing for something – something that John’s message touched within them. Here, away from the city, John would not attract idle on-lookers, but those who were sincere in their desire for repentance and forgiveness, who had a desire for the new life that the coming Messiah would provide.

Second, for the Jewish people hearing John’s message, the setting of wilderness would have been deeply significant from a historical and religious perspective. It would have reminded them of the forty years wandering in the wilderness, where the Israelites were tested and cleansed, where they discerned for themselves who they were and what it meant to be God’s Chosen People. Similarly, the wilderness would have reminded them of the Maccabean Revolt two hundred years earlier, where rebel warriors fought foreign occupiers, conducting guerilla warfare from outposts in the wilderness. The wilderness was seen as a place for those seeking righteousness and justice. And it would be from the wilderness that righteousness and justice prevailed, resulting in freedom for the people, reasserting Jewish religious practices that had been outlawed, and rededication of the Temple. (As a side note, this victory is the basis for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which happens to be this week.) So the setting of the wilderness would have reminded them of key events in the history of this people, of events that shaped their identity as God’s Chosen. And for those present, John the Baptist, through his preaching and sacramental acts, would further shape their identity as those who would become the earliest Christians.

And third, the wilderness has always been a place of escape from the distractions of everyday life – to recharge, to seek or reconnect with God, to struggle with whatever might be going on in one’s life. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus needed time for prayer or to re-energize, he would withdraw to remote places, sometimes the wilderness. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Desert Fathers and Mothers went into the wilderness to escape the distractions of the world and to focus on their relationship with God. And even today, how many of us occasionally feel a need to retreat to a wilderness place, be it desert, forest, mountains, ocean – anyplace where we can get away from the distractions of our busy world, to focus on some deeper need – connecting with God, struggling with some sort of personal issue, even reconnecting with loved ones? Wilderness may be more and more difficult to find in the 21st century, but we continue to have a need for it nonetheless.

Last Sunday as I was reading the morning paper, I looked at my usual cartoons. There are only a few that I regularly read, but that day, my eye fell on one I don’t normally read, “Rose is Rose,” and the imagery grabbed my attention. In the comic strip, Rose is walking along and you see a city skyline in the background. She looks at her cell phone and it has five bars. She continues walking and the skyline grows smaller as she gets into a more rural area with trees and a stream. She looks at her cell phone again and it has three bars. She continues walking deeper into the countryside. She looks at her cell phone again and there is that message we hate to see – “No Service.” In the final panel, Rose looks out over the hilly countryside with a stream and birds in the sky, and has a deeply contented, even prayerful, countenance. The text in this final panel reads “Sometimes you have to lose the signal to get the message!” In other words, sometimes you need to get away from all the distractions in order to reconnect with yourself and with God.

I think that is one of the key lessons in today’s Gospel reading. In this season of anticipation and preparation, maybe what we need to do by way of preparation is to take a cue from John the Baptist. A key part of his wilderness message was that we need to turn away from that which separates us from God and to reconnect with God. To do that, maybe we need to take a little trip into the wilderness.

Of course, it is not always easy to find wilderness. There is very little wilderness left. And even the alleged wilderness is not free from societal influences. This past spring I was hiking at Jenks Lake and stopped to rest and take in the beauty of my surroundings. As I sat there, all of a sudden there was a ringing coming from my knapsack. There out in the wilderness, away from civilization, and I was still being interrupted thanks to technology. And what did I do? I gave in and took the call. A lot of our inability to find wilderness space, to separate ourselves from that which distracts us, is of our own doing. We are so connected and so dependent on our cell phones and Blackberries and laptops and iPads, that we are continually being bombarded and distracted by calls, text messages, instant messages, and e-mails – no matter where we are. So, if anything, we need to be even more intentional in our attempts to find or create wilderness space in our lives. True wilderness space means getting away from all distractions, even the electronic devices we think we can’t live without, so that the only voice we hear is that of God speaking to us.

We are social beings requiring human interaction; hence our need to be connected, even electronically. But we are also spiritual beings requiring interaction with our God. And to do that requires our full attention. Such efforts are made easier by withdrawing to a wilderness place. True wilderness, truly away, is probably best. But barring that, there are other options closer to home, if we but look.

Ironically, if you take our looser definition of wilderness as that which removes us from the distractions of day-to-day life and allows us time to reconnect with God and with our own spirit, then we are in a wilderness space right now. Yes, sadly, but thankfully, the church is a wilderness space. While the church used to pretty much be the center of everyday life and activity, its place in society has changed. Now, rather than being a familiar second home, for many people the church is a strange and foreign place, not unlike true wilderness places. Church is seen as a place apart from “the real world.”

But that’s not such a bad thing. It’s actually a blessing. Because it is in the wilderness space of the church that we can, even if only for a brief time, remove ourselves from the distractions of our otherwise crazy lives. It is a place apart where we can be in silence for a change and open ourselves to God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, and to get in touch with the hopes and hurts that we carry in our own beings. And it may even be a place where we occasionally encounter some wild and wooly characters who might jolt us just enough to see in a different way, who might show us how to prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

“Jesus is Coming! Everybody Look Busy!”

First Sunday of Advent – Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Sunday, November 28, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

As we begin this Advent season, it feels to me as if there is so much going on. Perhaps it is because we just finished Thanksgiving and are already three days into the official Christmas season as reckoned by secular society. Perhaps it is because I made the mistake of looking at my calendar and see how much we have going on around here, how much needs to be done before Christmas – Advent programming, Lessons and Carols, Las Posadas, Blue Christmas, planning for pageants and special liturgies. That may contribute to it, but what I am particularly referring to is that Advent is not just a time when there is a lot of activity going on, but it is also a time in which there is a lot going on theologically.

We always talk about how Advent is a time of anticipation and preparation. It is the time when we anticipate the coming of our Lord, both in terms of the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, and in terms of the coming of the Risen Lord at the end of the ages, what we refer to as the parousia, the Second Coming. And it is a time of preparation, as we prepare our hearts and our spirits to receive the newborn baby who grows up to be our Messiah, who ultimately is crucified and resurrected for our salvation. It is also a time of preparation for his coming again; of putting our spiritual lives in order so that we are ready for the Second Coming and the new kingdom it will usher in. Advent is the time of anticipation and preparation for receiving God’s gift of salvation through the Word made flesh in varying manifestations.

We pretty well have the anticipation and preparation for Jesus’ birth, for Christmas, taken care of. We have something tangible to shoot for, something date certain – Christmas Day, which, by the way, is only 27 shopping days from now. For most people, the good cheer amid carols of “Joy to the World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the retelling of the nativity story, just sort of naturally prepare our hearts and spirits for the remembrance of Jesus’ birth. But in all the rushing, the frantic and frenetic activity, we tend to miss out on some of the theological richness of this season. We tend to overlook the second component of Advent – the anticipation and preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord.

The Second Coming is a little more difficult for many of us to fathom, isn’t it? As Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We don’t know when it’s going to happen, and I think for many of us in this crazy, busy-ness oriented, schedule driven world, this is a little uncomfortable. We need to know when it’s going to happen so we can get it on the calendar. Even if we aren’t able to control the timing, at the very least, we want to know the details about what is going to happen, so we know what to expect. But Scripture doesn’t give us any useful information. Because the whole Second Coming thing is far less tangible than Christmas, maybe it’s just as easy to ignore that unknown and unknowable part of Advent.

But how can we when our Gospel lesson focuses on that very subject? Jesus makes it clear that despite the unknown timing, we are to be prepared. Prepared how? I have to admit that whenever I read this section of Matthew’s Gospel, whenever I think about Christ’s Second Coming and what it means to be prepared, I am instantly reminded of a bumper sticker I saw years ago – “Jesus is Coming! Everybody Look Busy!” And to be honest, I think that’s kind of what a lot of people think about the Second Coming. Oh, I’m not going to worry about it until later, when it actually happens.

As the 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth has commented, Christians look backward, remembering God’s acts of salvation, and we look forward, anticipating the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth. As such, Barth notes, we Christians live “between the times.” Advent focuses on these two times, the time of Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago, and Christ’s Second Coming at some time in the future. Advent is a reminder that we do live “between the times.” As such, we cannot look down the road at some yet-to-be determined event, but rather we would do best to focus on our lives as they are in the here and now, “between the times.” That’s not to say that we shouldn’t look to the past or anticipate the future. The past gives us insight and the future allows for imagination. But we live in the here and now. And so our preparations need to be in the here and now.

That is part of why we come to church and do all the other stuff that goes on around here. It’s about preparation. We come together to explore what it means to live the Gospel. But the work doesn’t stop there. We are to take what we see and hear and experience home with us, reflect on it in relation to our own lives, and figure out what we might need to change, what we might need to do better, to live the Gospel, to be the Body of Christ in the world, to help us be better prepared. This is not something that can happen instantaneously, but is on-going work.

Another way to look at it is the same as you would New Year’s. Appropriate, since today, the first Sunday of Advent, is the beginning of a new liturgical year – our New Year’s Day, if you will. On New Year’s Eve, I tend to spend some time looking back at the previous year, at what went well, what went right, and celebrate that. I also look at what didn’t go so well, at where I may have fallen short, and try to see the lessons to be had in those experiences. And I look forward, at the blank slate ahead of me and maybe note some ideas of what I might want to do with that blank slate. But then I move back to the present, because it is what I do in my day-to-day life that is going to make the difference as I move into the future, that will define who I am, who I become. There is an anticipation of what the future holds, and recognition of the preparation that will be needed to get there. Some people make that anticipation and preparation real through New Year’s resolutions. There is a recognition that something needs to change, there is the motivation to do so, leading to a resolution to make the change a reality.

It can be easy to put off making changes to sometime down the road, particularly when there is no apparent pressing need to do so – such as an uncertain time frame like the Second Coming. But Jesus’ warning is that we “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Based on this, our preparations cannot wait. Jesus is calling us to identify where we are falling short in living the Gospel; what we need to do to achieve what Paul describes as coming “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). After all, that is what each of us is called to as Christians.

The anticipation is pretty much the same for all of us. We examine our lives and see where and how we might be able to better live the Gospel, to be ready for Christ’s coming again. The preparations that we need to make, on the other hand, will vary from person to person. Just as one person might make a New Year’s resolution to spend more time with loved ones, one person’s Advent resolution may be to spend more time with God in prayer. Just as another person may make a New Year’s resolution to take a class or learn a new language, someone might make an Advent resolution to study the Bible more intentionally. Just as someone might make a New Year’s resolution to undertake an exercise program, so might someone make an Advent resolution to exercise their missional muscles by engaging in outreach.

And it’s not just individuals that do this. The church, as the Body of Christ in the world is similarly struggling to discern how best to live the Gospel in the world. I think we have seen that in our own parish over the last few years. In 2009 we began our strategic planning process, in which we spent a lot of time looking backward, at who we are, where we have been, at what worked in the past and what did not. And we determined that while we have done some good things, maybe we could do a better job of looking beyond our walls and be the Body of Christ in our community. Based on this information, we developed a strategic plan that identified who we want to become and where we want to go. In 2010, we spent a lot of time fleshing that out, identifying what specifically needs to be done, how and where we need to change, to meet our objectives. A big part of that has been to identify just how we are called to use our gifts and talents in mission to the community and to plan how to do that. And in 2011, we will begin implementing some of those plans, more fully living the Gospel, and moving more into the fullness of who God is calling Trinity parish to be. I see this new year as one in which Trinity busts loose and really starts to live into the fullness of who and what God is calling us to be.

And the beautiful thing is that all this preparation tends to build on itself. We as individuals prepare ourselves by striving to better live the Gospel. And a lot of that for those of us in the church translates into the energy and resources that are needed for the parish to move forward, proclaiming and living the Gospel in the world. And this collective energy further strengthens the resolve of the individuals to devote more energy to exemplify the Body of Christ, being the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world. In this we grow together into who God is calling us to be. That is the preparation that Jesus asks of us.

As individuals and as a parish, Jesus issues the same warning – to be ready, for he will come at an unexpected time. So let’s not just look busy. Let’s get busy. Jesus is coming!

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Being True to Our Identity

25th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28) – Year C (RCL)
Native American Sunday

Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

Sunday, November 14, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19)

These are the final words of assurance and encouragement Jesus provides to his disciples after a pretty nasty description of things to come. Jesus has just foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He also foretells of false messiahs, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues, dreadful portents, and persecution of his followers. We know that the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 AD. And all the other things foretold by Jesus may well have been the reality at the time that Luke was writing his Gospel, and therefore, been reflected in his writings. But this foretold reality is ancient history to us in 21st century America.

What Jesus is talking about is a time of betrayal, condemnation, and persecution that, in his time and the time immediately following his death and resurrection, was because of his name. This betrayal, condemnation, and persecution would be directed toward the followers of Jesus merely because of who they chose to worship, because of who they were. In short, this was all about identity and what can happen to us because of our identity. And in those final words, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” I believe Jesus is telling us that what is of paramount importance is to be true to our identity, no matter what.

Sadly, betrayal, condemnation, and persecution because of identity are not a thing of the past, but have been and continue to be very much a part of our societal struggles and conflicts. I am particularly mindful of this today, as we celebrate Native American Sunday. From the time that Europeans set foot on this continent, interaction and relations with the Native peoples has been characterized by distrust, betrayal, and persecution. Our European ancestors and the government they established have broken treaties originally made with Native tribal nations, stolen Native lands, and forcibly relocated proud peoples to desolate, nearly uninhabitable reservations. For generations, up through the latter part of the 20th century, our government’s policy was to force the assimilation of Native peoples into “American society.”

Our honored guests today include a number of our Native brothers and sisters. Among them are the White Rose Singers from Sherman Indian High School in Riverside. The school was established by the US Government in 1892 to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. The purpose and programming of Sherman Indian School and similar institutions across the country was to force Native children to learn English and to adapt to the American way of life. Use of their own languages was forbidden. Traditional customs and cultural practices were forbidden. Native spiritual beliefs and rituals were forbidden. They were taught that their traditional cultures were inferior and shameful. In short, these people were denigrated because of their identity as Native. As a result, many became, and continue to be, ashamed of who they are.

Sadly, because of such shame, the betrayal, condemnation, and persecution of who we are because of identity is not solely from the outside, at the hands of others, but can be wrought at our own hands. We are sufficiently capable of betraying, condemning, and persecuting ourselves for who we are as well. I want to tell you the story of such a person, of a woman who grew up and lived her entire life ashamed of being Native. Her name was Hazel Nell Hunt, and she was born in 1891 in southeastern Kansas. Hazel Nell was Cherokee. Because of the time in which she lived, she was made to feel ashamed of her Native heritage. But Hazel Nell had an advantage, at least as far as she was concerned, in that she could “pass.” Her features and complexion were such that she appeared to be white. Because she was ashamed of being Native, she used her looks to her advantage and was able to hide who she was, to deny her heritage.

Hazel Nell grew into a young woman, and two days before her 17th birthday, she married a white man – someone who could remove her one step further from her despised heritage. She eventually had six children, five boys and a girl. While the outside world may have thought Hazel Nell was white, her husband and her children knew that she was Cherokee. But because she was ashamed of who she was, and probably to protect her children from the shame of being “half-breeds,” she never taught them anything about their Cherokee heritage. As a result, one of Hazel Nell’s sons, my grandfather, never learned about his Native heritage. And as a result, he was never able to pass along that part of his heritage to my father. And he was never able to pass along that part of his heritage to me and my sister. As a result, a valuable and proud part of my family history is essentially lost to me. As a result, I feel a bit incomplete, not knowing my full heritage, not knowing my whole identity.

I don’t condemn my great-grandmother. It’s not Hazel Nell’s fault. Who could blame her? She was just doing what she felt she needed to do in the early 20th century to protect herself and her family from potential persecution because of bloodline and blood quantum. But in protecting herself, my grandfather, and his siblings, she herself effectively instituted the forced assimilation that was the policy of the US government. It wasn’t imposed from outside. Hazel Nell imposed it on herself and her family. To prevent the government from taking away her identity, she stripped herself of that identity. But does that make the damage any less real? Because the reality is that no matter how much she claimed to be white, she was not. She was Cherokee. She knew herself to be Cherokee. She knew that she was living a lie. So how much did her well-meaning actions impact her sense of dignity and self-worth? How much did they impact her soul? There has to be some emotional and spiritual damage in being forced to deny who you are, who you know yourself to be.

I think that is what Jesus was warning his disciples, and us, about in today’s Gospel reading – to be faithful and true to our basic and most fundamental identity. Be it what Jesus was talking about – our identity because of his name, because of being Christians – or any other identity we have, be it based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else – it is part of who we are. It is how God made us. God honors and loves what He has made and how He has made us, and so should we.

We belong to a Church that believes that identity is not an issue when it comes to membership. We are as God made us and that is enough. When our Creator made us, no matter who we are, He declared what He did when He made the first humans – that we are very good. In our primary act of inclusion, at the time of baptism, we vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.” And several times each year, we renew those same baptismal vows, just as we did last Sunday, re-promising to God and reminding ourselves of the importance of respecting the dignity of all, no matter who they are. God respects our dignity. And so are we to do likewise.

Actually, I need to take that back. Identity is an issue. But the only identity that makes any difference to God is our identity in Jesus Christ, our identity as God’s beloved children, made in His image and likeness. And yes, that image and likeness is red. And it is brown. And it is black. And it is yellow. And it is white. And God honors us and loves us despite our identity, and because of our identity. God loves us precisely for who we are. As such, who we are is not to be hidden, but celebrated.

It has taken many years, but maybe we’re finally beginning to get the message Jesus preached 2,000 years ago. Many of our Native sisters and brothers were forced to assimilate. Many of our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers felt compelled to hide who they were. But no more. That is why we celebrate Native American Heritage Month – to honor our heritage, to honor those who have gone before and paved the way so that today we can freely and openly proclaim who we are, whatever that may be. And that is true for every person in this room, Native or not. For that heritage given us by God is what makes us who we are. And it is our identity in Jesus Christ that gives us the strength and courage to boldly proclaim who we are and whose we are, to claim that which gives us life and gives it to us in abundance. For as Jesus proclaims, “By your endurance,” by being true to your identity, your total identity, “you will gain your souls” and the fullness and richness of life that your identity opens to you.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Persistence in Prayer

21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24) – Year C (RCL)
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Sunday, October 17, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

Unlike some of Jesus’ parables, where we are left trying to figure out what he means, today’s Gospel lesson tells us up from that it is about the “need to pray always and not lose heart.” But the imagery used to illustrate the point is a little puzzling. We have a widow who is persistent and continually nags a judge to grant her justice. While the persistence of the widow makes sense in the context of prayer, the unjust judge is the puzzling part. He is obviously a bad judge. Judges were, after all, charged with executing justice on behalf of God. The fact that he has no fear of God and no respect for those petitioning him indicates that he is not doing the job he is charged with, but is likely in it for his own gain. And the only reason he finally gives in and grants the widow justice is that if she keeps bringing up the issue, people will start to see that he is not doing his job. He will be exposed for the charlatan he is and possibly lose his job and the accompanying place of status.

If the widow and her actions are intended to represent the need for persistence in our prayer life, does that mean the judge is intended to represent God? No, of course not. We know that God is concerned with justice and mercy. Our God would not behave the way the judge does in the parable. I think the unjust judge is merely a device, a barrier the widow comes up against, something requiring patience and persistence to overcome. The real point of the parable is just what the intro says: we “need to pray always and not lose heart.” The whole scene illustrates the benefits of the widow being persistent and not losing heart that she would prevail. That is how we need to approach our prayer life.

Prayer is nothing more than communicating with God. And what this parable tells us is that like in any relationship, communications is essential and ongoing. If you only communicated with your spouse or partner when it was absolutely necessary or only when you wanted something, chances are your relationship wouldn’t last very long. It probably wouldn’t have started in the first place. Now that doesn’t mean that if we don’t communicate with God, if we don’t pray regularly, God will abandon us. God is patient. He will wait for us as long as it takes. And when we do finally get around to praying, God will just be happy that we remember him and want to talk. But communications goes so much smoother, and is so much easier, when we practice, when we do it regularly with those we care about. Think back to when you first met someone, maybe a first date. Remember how awkward it can be to communicate with someone you don’t really know. But over time, as you get to know someone, as you communicate with them more and more, it becomes easier. It is no longer a chore, but a delight.

I’m always somewhat amused in movies or TV shows where the protagonist, when faced with a crisis situation and when all other options are exhausted, decides now is the time to pray. It always goes the same way: Okay God, I’m not very good at this. I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, I could really use your help right now . . . Well if you had been praying all along, you’d probably be good at it, or at least somewhat comfortable. God is not a crisis help line. God is someone who wants to be in relationship with us, wants us to be in relationship with him. And a key part of that is communications. By developing good prayer practices now, we become comfortable with prayer. Then when the time comes when we really feel a need for fervent prayer, we are not stumbling around trying to figure out what to do, but can approach God with confidence, laying out what is in our heart and on our mind. That’s why the persistence is important. Persistence in prayer is about regular, faithful time with the One who delights in being with us.

Regular, faithful, persistent prayer is also about something else. By being persistent, we demonstrate that we have not abandoned God. We are opening ourselves to participate in the coming kingdom, living in hope, to working however we can for what is most important to God: justice, mercy, and peace. When we do pray, a lot of our activity is spent in talking at God, rattling off a list of prayer concerns, going through a laundry list of things we want or think we need, offering advice to God on how to run the universe. And it’s important to convey our own needs and concerns to God. But it’s not solely about expressing our own stuff. Part of prayer is also opening ourselves up to listen for God, opening ourselves up to discern what he is calling us to do by way of ministry in our parishes and our communities, to discern how he is calling us to participate in the coming kingdom.

Again, prayer is communications and effective communications is a two-way street. If we are in relationship with someone, we can’t do all the talking and expect them to only listen. We need to pause occasionally and allow the other person to communicate as well. So it is with God. We need to incorporate some times of silence into our prayer life to allow God the opportunity to communicate with us. And here again, that is where persistence comes in. We need to be persistent in prayer, including times of silence to allow for God’s voice, so that we can become more comfortable with being in silence before God. We need to be persistent so that we become more comfortable and skilled at discerning how God is communicating with us. Such skills require time to develop and cannot be honed with an occasional dumping of a prayer list onto God’s lap and then walking away.

As to content of our prayers, that can get a little dicey for some of us. Many of us have prayed in earnest, or had friends or family who have prayed in earnest for a particular thing or outcome, only to have the prayers go unanswered; or rather, not answered in the way we wanted. And I’m not talking about prayers to win the lottery. Usually such experiences of unanswered prayers tend to involve issues of health and wholeness, of life and death. When this happens, we can begin to question our faith. Do I not have enough faith? Did I not do something right? Particularly when we have lessons from scripture like today’s Gospel lesson which imply that if we are just persistent enough, we will get what we want; our prayers will be answered. Well, that’s not really what today’s Gospel lesson is saying. Yes, in the story, the widow did prevail. But the story is not about getting what we pray for as much as it is about persistence and not losing heart when prayers do not seem to be answered.

Years ago, when I was a lay person at St. Francis, San Bernardino, I had a dilemma regarding prayers for healing. We had a parishioner who was very ill and was obviously not going to get better. This person was on the parish prayer list for healing and I dutifully prayed for healing. But I did not feel right about praying for the healing of someone who was going to die at any time. I finally went to Fr. David and explained my problem. He told me that even in the case of terminally ill people it’s okay to pray for healing because healing takes many forms. The person may not be healed physically, but there can be emotional or spiritual healing. Relationships can be healed. And ultimately, death is a form of healing, whereby we are made new and whole. It’s up to God to decide what form healing may take. Just as it’s up to God to determine how any prayer is answered.

When it comes to answering prayers, we don’t know why some get answered and others don’t. We do know that God gives us not what we most want or what we think we need, but what we most need. And sometimes the needs of a number of people have to be balanced. To see how prayers are answered, why they are answered the way they are, sometimes we need to dig and try to figure out what that is in amongst the situations we find ourselves in. Sometimes it may not be apparent for some time, if ever. Just like a parent who hears our pleas for a cookie before dinner or a pony for Christmas, God hears with loving patience, but knows ultimately what is best for us. Or, as The Rev. James Dillet Freeman, a twentieth century minster and poet notes, “Sometimes the answer to prayer is not that it changes life, but that it changes you” (James Dillet Freeman Quotes).

That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is ultimately about. If we are persistent in prayer, if we are faithful in our ongoing communication with the God who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, our life will be greatly enriched. Just as in all the other areas of our lives, our prayers may not always be answered the way we would have them. But we can rest assured that God does hear our prayers. He always answers our prayers. And if we let them, the answers just might change our lives.

“James Dillet Freeman Quotes.”
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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Returning, Offering Thanks and Praise

20th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 23) – Year C (RCL)
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Sunday, October 10, 2010 (8:00 service only) –
Trinity, Redlands

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18)

Both our Old Testament and Gospel lessons document healings of lepers who are also foreigners. In 2 King, the prophet Elisha facilitates the healing of Naaman, an Aramean soldier. In Luke, Jesus heals ten lepers, with the focus being on one who is a Samaritan. In both cases, healing is provided to double outcasts. Both Naaman and the Samaritan leper are foreigners with different religious practices from the Jews. And both men initially suffered from leprosy, effectively ostracizing them from their own communities, as well as any other. But what could the healing of a couple of foreign lepers have to do with us? More than you might think.

If we look carefully at both stories, we find that the focus isn’t really on the acts of healing. In 2 Kings, the prophet Elisha merely tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. No pomp. No extended ritual. Just take a long bath. Similarly, in Luke, the healing act is downplayed. Usually, there is narrative about what Jesus does to heal people – touching them, putting mud on their eyes, or at least telling them their sins are forgiven or that they are healed. But in this pericope, all Jesus says is “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Nothing more. No, the healing acts in and of themselves are not that important. What is more important in both readings is what happens after the healing events. What is more important is Naaman’s and the Samaritan leper’s response to being healed.

Upon being healed, Naaman returned to Elisha and said “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He was offering not only his thanks to Elisha, but also his praise to the God who had made his healing possible. And the Samaritan leper, unlike the other nine who were similarly healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He then “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” In both cases, these men returned and offered thanks and praise to God, the source of the healing.

When we talk about praying for healing, we often get caught in a thorny predicament. If we pray for healing and we or a loved one isn’t healed, does that mean we don’t have enough faith? Did we not do something right? This implies that having faith is about cause and effect, that it’s about having a sufficient quantity to get the job done, to achieve the desired result. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not about having faith but about living it. Truly having faith means expressing it. Truly having faith means living in gratitude. And living in gratitude strengthens faith. In both our stories, the men’s gratitude is expressed through faith in the God who healed them. They live this new found faith in gratitude, through their expressions of thanks and praise. This is a cyclic phenomenon. Faith results in gratitude results in more faith results in more gratitude, and so on.

The healing of a couple of foreign outcasts resulted in each returning and offering gratitude, in “converting,” believing in and worshiping God who made this possible for them. How much more, then, should those of us who already believe in and worship God trust in his presence and healing power in our own lives? How much more should we return and offer gratitude, offer our thanks and praise for the blessings God has provided us?

That is what all of this is about. That is why we come to church. We don’t come because we have to. We come in response, out of gratitude. Offering thanks and praise is central to what we do in this place. For what is the central act of our worship but Eucharist? Eucharist, from the Greek eucharisto, meaning “gratitude, giving of thanks.” The Eucharistic prayer is also known as the Great Thanksgiving. And at the very beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” to which the people respond and affirm the central purpose of our worship, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” Every Sunday, we join with Naaman and with the Samaritan leper. We return to this place to express thanks and praise as we gather around this table.

And there’s something else about Naaman and the Samaritan leper that apply to us and to what we do here. In their healings, both Naaman and the Samaritan leper, by virtue of being cleansed, were able to return to their respective communities. Where they had been previously ostracized because of disease, they were now cleansed and could be welcomed home. Here again, this is what we do every Sunday. When we come to church, when we participate in Eucharist, we are joining Naaman and the Samaritan leper in being reunited with our community. Whatever we feel might keep us away from this place has been washed away by the grace of God’s incredible love for us. We enter this place anew each Sunday. We are given a fresh start. In this place, we are not ostracized but welcomed. We are not outcasts but community. And that community does not just exist within these walls. We are part of a community that is much larger, one that welcomes us just as readily.

At our 10:15 service, we will welcome the Right Reverend Diane Jardine Bruce, Bishop Suffragan of this diocese. As a bishop of the church, she represents the broader communities of which we are a part – the Diocese of Los Angeles, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion. And at that service, six members of our parish will be confirmed and two will be received – reaffirming their Baptismal Vows, affirming their commitment to Christ and his Church and a deepening of their journey into living the faith, into living lives of gratitude. Bishop Bruce will lay hands on these members on behalf of the broader church community, confirming and receiving them as members of the Church, affirming that they are part of a vast community of brothers and sisters in the faith.

In scripture, we have the examples of the likes of Naaman and the Samaritan leper, outsiders, who have chosen to live the faith out of gratitude. Throughout our long history as a religion, we have many more examples of those dedicated to offering thanks and praise to our God. And in our own community, we are blessed to have the newest witnesses to the faith, as Allysan, Amanda, Heather, Hopi, Kenneth, Laura, Susan, and Zach make that conscious decision and public affirmation to follow the one who heals and cleanses, who nurtures and sustains us all. Let them be reminders of our own commitment to the Church, and living examples to all of us of what it means to live a life of faith – continually made new, continually returning, continually offering thanks and praise, and continually welcomed by this community of faith.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Invisible Suffering

18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 21) – Year C (RCL)
Amos 6:1a ,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Sunday, September 26, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

Certainly one of the obvious meanings of today’s Gospel lesson is the dichotomy between rich and poor. More specifically, the implication that riches are evil and those who are rich will suffer in the world to come, while those who have suffered poverty in this life will be blessed in the next. And the other readings for the day certainly support this theme. But part of the lesson from 1 Timothy implies that wealth in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve talked about this several times this past summer, including last week in Father David’s sermon. What is important is our attitude toward wealth, that we not become obsessed with it, distracting us from what is truly important. What is important is what we do with our riches. Rather than harp on that theme again, there are a couple of sub-themes in today’s Gospel lesson that are worth exploring – themes that transcend wealth and speak to us regardless of socioeconomic status.

The first is what one scholar refers to as “invisible suffering.” The Gospel lesson tells us that Lazarus, a poor beggar, positioned himself at the rich man’s gate. Whenever he came or went, the rich man would have had to have passed Lazarus. The rich man couldn’t help but see Lazarus laying there. But he did nothing to help ease Lazarus’ plight. It’s not that the rich man had anything against Lazarus. The reality is that while he may have seen him, the rich man did not notice Lazarus. Many of us have probably had experiences where we have seen someone, say a homeless person, and walked right on by as if they didn’t exist. When I lived in Los Angeles and in Chicago, I saw a lot of homeless. When you see them all the time, it can become easy to see them but to not really take notice. They just become part of the landscape. This is what is meant by the “invisible suffering.” They are there, but we just don’t pay attention to them. They suffer, but we don’t notice.

This disregard is further illustrated by the rich man’s actions after the two have died and gone to the place of the dead. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to ease his agony and later asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man’s brothers. Not only does the rich man treat Lazarus as an inferior, as a servant, he also speaks about Lazarus in the third person, as if he is not even there, just as he treated him in life.

The interesting thing about the plight of the poor and the invisible suffering is that thanks to mass media and the internet, we are much more aware of global suffering than we ever were before. But we are still detached. When we grow weary of seeing it, we can always change the channel or surf to a happier website. That way we don’t have to see the ugliness, feel the sorrow or pain. And if we do choose to help, it is often in an equally detached way. Just a click of a mouse and we can send money from our credit card to some organization that will help. No need to get our hands dirty. But while we may be aware of needs in some distant third world country, are we even aware of the magnitude of need in our own country, in our own city? Just like the rich man, when confronted with it on our own doorsteps, more often than not, we just walk by, anesthetized to the plight of others.

In the dichotomy between the rich man and Lazarus, the Gospel lesson is not just providing a message in how we use our financial resources. It is about something broader and more fundamental. It is about our humanity, about having compassion for others, for our fellow human beings. And not just to the poor. While Lazarus is an example of the typical marginalized person in first century Palestine, he also serves as an archetype of a much broader category of invisible suffering. He is the archetype of all who are marginalized – all who are the victims of violence, oppression, or neglect because of who they are – be that based on socioeconomic status, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. All who are marginalized regardless of the reason suffer in some way, generally in ways that we cannot see. Invisible suffering takes on a whole new meaning.

The fundamental message is that as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ, it is our imperative to see the marginalized, to make visible the suffering and injustice in the world, and to reach out in compassion, with respect, and do what we can to help ease the plight of the other. Right in our own Baptismal Covenant, we pledge to strive for justice and to respect the dignity of every human being. It is a fundamental part of who we are as Christians.

The whole scene in the Gospel lesson that takes place in the underworld gives us a clue as to why this is so important. No, it’s not that we will be damned to eternity in flaming agony if we don’t seek justice and mercy for the marginalized. As I see it, the scene in underworld is not so much about damnation for what we do or don’t do in life, but more an image to help us understand faithfulness. Abraham, as the founder of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can be seen as a representation of what our tradition views as faithfulness, and particularly faithful living. After all, Abraham’s whole life was about faithfully following God and doing his will. The chasm can be seen as the separation between faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Scripture repeatedly tell us that God has preference for the marginalized. This is symbolized by Lazarus resting with Abraham. Our God and our faith tradition call us to be on the side of the suffering and the marginalized, to do what we can to ease their suffering, to comfort them. Now if we are truly living our faith and doing what God is calling us to do, that puts us on the Abraham side of the chasm that separates the faithful from the unfaithful, that separates those who really get it from those who are self-absorbed and don’t get it.

But living our faith is not always easy. Sometimes we get so busy that we just don’t see the marginalized in front of us. Or if we do, we aren’t willing to take the time to respond. When I am confronted with and ignore the marginalized in my midst, my inaction seems to haunt me. I cannot help but agonize over my inaction, dwelling on that moment when I was more absorbed in my own business and did not take the opportunity to live my faith as God calls me to. Invariably, I then find myself thinking about the afterlife. The interesting thing is that I don’t worry about what God will say to me about what I did and did not do in this life. What I think about is what will happen if and when I run into someone I have ignored or somehow mistreated. I wonder if they will remember what I did or did not do. If so, I wonder what they might say to me. What if they ask why I didn’t help? What will say to them? Will they forgive me?

But before that happens, I have a choice. I can choose to be more aware of my brothers and sisters who are marginalized. I can choose to do something instead of just walking by as if there were no one there. I can choose to live my faith, doing what I am able to live God’s call for justice and mercy.

As I read the Gospel lesson, another question comes to mind. What is our motivation for attempting to live our faith? Why do we strive to do what God asks us to do? The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them, so that they might change their ways and not end up suffering the same fate as the rich man. Somehow, the motivation seems all wrong. The rich man is implying that we should do the right thing, not because it is the right thing, not because it is what God asks us to do, but because it will score brownie points with God. Rack up enough point and you get into heaven. No, Lazarus going back to the brothers would be sending the wrong message – be kind, do mercy in order to save yourself from eternal damnation. That’s not the way it works.

God has given us free will. We have a choice in how we respond to the situations that present themselves, including how we deal with the invisible suffering. As Abraham points out, we have the law and the prophets to guide us. We are given the Scriptures to educate us as to how we are to live our lives, how we are to treat others, how we are to work for justice and mercy. God sent Christ into the world out of his love for all humanity. We are given the gift of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift of mercy to humanity, to guide us in how to live faithfully. We can follow Christ and be motivated by the example of God’s love for us to love our neighbors and to care for them, especially our neighbors who are the invisible suffering. Or we can be motivated by fear of God’s wrath and eternal damnation if we don’t do the right things.

God wants us to follow him and to follow his commands because we want to out of gratitude and love, not out of fear. We don’t need someone to come back to warn us, because the only one who has ever come back, been resurrected, Jesus Christ, has shown us the path of love that leads to eternal life, for us and for all God’s children, including the invisible suffering. And through his death and resurrection, we do not need to worry about which side of the chasm we are on, whether we are the rich man or Lazarus. But we are the rich man’s brothers and sisters. And we have a choice.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Eucharistic Theology from the Mouths of Babes 3

During the 10:15 service, I was giving communion to a family comprised of the parents, two older children (around three and four), and the baby Elani who is probably about two. I gave hosts to the two older children, and then went to give a host to Elani, whom her mother was holding. As I got ready to give it to her, Elani eagerly reached out to receive it. After I gave her the host, I then communicated the two parents. Since they were at the end of the altar rail, I stepped aside to make room for the LEM. After Elani finished eating the host, she looked over at me and reached out her hand for more. I could not help but laugh, as did the parents. She knew the goodness of the Body of Christ and wanted more.


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Seat of Honor

14th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 17) – Year C (RCL)
Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14
Sunday, August 29, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

Where is Emily Post when you need her? Haven’t these people ever heard of seating charts painstakingly prepared to be sure that everyone is assigned to just the right spot according to their social ranking? Haven’t they heard of place cards, preferably in calligraphy, so the guests will know where they are to sit, thereby avoiding embarrassment of sitting at the wrong table?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses the imagery of a common event, a wedding feast, to convey something about our relationship with God. In the parable, he cautions against sitting in too high of a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished arrive. If that were to happen, the host would need to displace you to make room for the more distinguished guest. With everyone else already seated, you would be forced to move to the lowest spot available, probably over in the corner by the door to the kitchen. And then you would have the embarrassment as you take that long walk past all the other guests, to the lowest place. And they would all know that this was because you think more highly of yourself than warranted.

To understand this a little better, we need to know something about first-century Palestinian wedding feasts. The male guests would all recline on couches to eat. There was a center couch which served as the equivalent of the head table, where the honored guests sat. At the beginning of the wedding feast, people would take their places based on wealth or power. So naturally, the wealthiest or most powerful person present would take his place at the center couch. But as was very common, the very wealthy and powerful often arrived fashionably late. In that case, the person at the center couch, if of lesser status, would need to be displaced. So Jesus was really only offering sound practical advice that you should assume yourself to be of lesser status, so if no one with higher status shows, you will honored by being invited to the center couch. And all will see how you are honored. But what Jesus is really telling us is far richer and deeper than how to navigate social situations with minimal embarrassment.

In this, Jesus is attempting to give some insight into a different banquet, the heavenly banquet to which all God’s people are invited to attend at the end of the ages, when the kingdom of God is truly initiated. And even more than that, the dynamics within the context of banquet tell us something about our relationship with God, who is host. But I think we might have a hard time with the interpretation if we are to view the heavenly banquet and our relationship with God in light of a Palestinian wedding feast. If we take the parable at face value, we are immediately told that some people have a higher standing, more worth, than others. Does that mean that some people are worth more to God or loved more by God, than others? No. If we take the parable at face value, we are told that we can manipulate our position in the eyes of God by pretending to be of lower status than we might really think of ourselves. Does that mean that we can fool God into favoring us over someone else? No.

What all of this really comes down to is humility, and the exercise of humility when it comes to our relationship with God and one another. Unfortunately, humility is a characteristic that, in our culture, we often associate with weakness, low social position, low self-esteem, maybe lack of ambition. And while humility can incorporate some of those meanings, it is more accurately the quality of not being pretentious, proud, or arrogant; of being unpretending or unassuming. And when discussed in a religious or spiritual context, humility is seen as the characteristic of transcending the ego or the self, of not being preoccupied with what we want but focusing rather on what God wants – what God wants for us and from us.

As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II wrote, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other at all” (Temple). In other words, humility provides the freedom to live and move and have our being in God, to allow God to be the foundation and the driving force in our lives, focusing on God rather than on our own ourselves.

The word humility is derived from the word humus, meaning ground, soil, earth. And I think this is significant. If we go back to the meaning of Christian humility, that of transcending of self and focusing on where God is in our lives, on what God wants us to do, haven’t we defined the essence of Christian living, the foundation of how we are to live our faith? Just as humus, soil, is the physical foundation on which we stand and are supported, and is the medium that provides growth and nurture for all living things, so too is humility the foundation on which our spiritual lives stand. Humility is the medium that allows for our spiritual growth and nurture, for our faith to grow and mature. Because it is only when we get out of the way of ourselves and allow God to work in our lives, to be in relationship with us, are we able to grow closer to God, and to grow in our faith.

I think this is wonderfully summed up in the words of one commentator who writes “The human condition is a process of maintaining a balance between knowing oneself to be created in the image of God and recognizing that all are created from dust” (Davidson, 193). It is through the practice of humility that we are able to recognize that while each of us is unique and special in so many ways, we are all ultimately equal in the eyes of God. We are all made in the image and likeness of God. None is more valued than another. And when we die, we will all return to the earth, to humus.

So back to our parable of the wedding feast and what it tells us about how we are to exercise humility in our relationship with God. In the parable, God is the host of the banquet, and the implication is that we are all trying to be deemed worthy to sit in the place of honor – not unlike the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wanted to have places of honor in the heavenly kingdom. The implication also seems to be that if we exercise humility and assume a lower place than we really think we should have – after all , we still have our egos intact, don’t we? – then God might just honor us when he sees how humble we are. Right? Wrong. This is false humility.

What this parable is really saying is that when we assume a place of honor that is not rightly ours, we are puffed up, focused on how important we are, or how worthy (at least we think) we are for a position of honor. And when we assume a lower place out of false humility, we are trying to manipulate God, we are still puffed up. But it is precisely that puffed-up-ness and arrogance that get in the way of our relationship with God. It is that sense of pride that forms a façade, a barrier that keeps God at a distance. But through the exercise of humility, by attempting to recognize that in God’s eyes we are all equal and that none of us is more special than anyone else, we are able to strip away the façades and barriers that stand between us and God. In stripping away those barriers, we are able to present ourselves as we are, to God. We are able to present ourselves to God as he made us – in his image and likeness. And in presenting ourselves as we are, we are able to be in closer relationship with God, which is what the seat of honor is really about – closeness to the host and recognition of being beloved in the eyes of the host.

How do we do that? I think the ending of today’s Gospel lesson provides a clue. Jesus tells the one who invited him that when giving a party, he should not invite his wealthy friends and family who will repay his invitation in kind. Rather, he is to invite those who are poor and marginalized, those who are typically not invited, those who do not take an invitation for granted, those who are not able to reciprocate. In other words, the host is to put aside his own ego and embrace those who are marginalized, those who he is able to help because of his wealth and power.

That is a sure-fire way to find and exercise our own sense of humility – to move outside of ourselves, outside of our own wants and concerns, outside our self-absorption and arrogance about who we think we are, and to help others, especially those who live on the margins. When we put our own stuff aside and turn our attention to the needs of others, we find out that we are not so different from those others. When we strip aside all the things that impress us about our own lives, we find that we are all human beings, that we are all children of God, with the same needs, the same hopes, the same dreams, the same fears. What separates us is extraneous stuff that we have allowed to define us, to be all-consuming of our time and energy – the same things that separate us from true relationship with our God. We get back to the foundation of what makes us human, what provides us with growth and nurture, with humus, with humility. We get back to true relationship with God. When in true relationship with God, our place at the banquet makes no difference. When in true relationship, there is nothing separating us from God. We are there with God, in the seat of honor.

The Good News is that in our relationship with God, and in the divine economy, there is not just one seat of honor at the heavenly banquet, but as many as are needed to accommodate all who are the children of God. So we don’t need to worry about jockeying for position or trying to get a good seat, because the invitations have been sent, the place cards have been set, and each and every one of us is assured of a seat of honor.

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

Davidson, Lisa W., et al. New Proclamation: Year C, 2009-2010, Easter through Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Temple, William. “A Definition.” Bible.Org. <> (23 August 2010).

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

How Are We To Deal With Division?

12th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15) – Year C (RCL)
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Sunday, August 15, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51)

Wait a minute! Something is not right here. One of the major themes of Luke and of Jesus’ ministry is peace and reconciliation. Luke starts out with choirs of angels at the time of Jesus’ birth proclaiming peace on earth. At the end of Luke, Jesus greets his disciples with “peace be with you” the last time he sees them before his ascension. And in between, Jesus preaches a message of peace and reconciliation through his words and actions. But here in the middle of all that, we have Jesus giving us a different message. Here, it seems that Jesus is defining his ministry not in terms of peace and reconciliation, but in terms of division and judgment. If Jesus were a modern-day politician, we would accuse him of flip-flopping. So what are we to make of this reversal in position, albeit momentary. It must be important if such a radical departure from the central message is recorded.

Over the last 2,000 years, scholars have been attempting to unlock the key to this particular passage, which is, without a doubt, the toughest collection of verses in Luke’s gospel. The most obvious interpretation is that as the Gospel of Jesus Christ spreads and takes hold, there will be differences and disagreements between believers and non-believers. Even amongst believers, there may be differences in interpretation of what the Gospel message means and how we are to live it out. Others influenced by ancient Greek ideas regarding rationality or by more modern concepts of individuality view this passage as symbolic of division and struggle within the self, with rational thought being the key to overpower sinful impulses.

In attempting to figure out what Jesus is talking about, there is some thought that the key may lie in his use of fire imagery. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” Is the fire Jesus references a refining, purifying fire, in which the faithful will be cleansed of sin? Or is it fire of judgment and destruction in which those who have sinned will be tried and if found guilty, subject to harsh punishment?

Given the overall nature of Jesus’ ministry of peace and reconciliation, I cannot accept the idea that he was referring to a fire of judgment and destruction. A cleansing, purifying fire might be a little more palatable. But looking at the Gospel message of love, justice, mercy, and inclusivity, I think he may have meant something a little different still. When you consider the overall Gospel message, I cannot help but think that the fire he brings to the earth is a bold proclamation of the Gospel that would be incendiary: a message so revolutionary the world had not seen the likes of it; a message which, once ignited, would spread like wildfire; a message so inflammatory that there would be some who don’t want to hear it. This would undoubtedly include the audience of Jesus’ proclamations in preceding passages – corrupt temple leaders.

Now as to the breadth and depth of the division, Jesus indicates it’s going to cut pretty deep. Jesus uses family imagery in describing the severity of division: father against son, daughter against mother. I don’t think that Jesus is speaking literally as much as he is speaking metaphorically, using a redefined understanding of family. Earlier in Luke, Jesus is told “your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He responds by saying “my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:20-21). It is apparent from this exchange that for Jesus, the definition of family and kinship is redefined. For Jesus, kinship is not based on family ties and allegiances, but rather on obedience to God. In the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection, kinship is not based on family bloodlines, but rather on Christ’s blood. By virtue of our baptisms, we are made part of the family as redefined by Jesus. And we even use that language, talking about our church family. So this familial division that Jesus is talking about is division amongst us, the faithful.

Throughout our history, we have seen divisions in the church. In the early centuries of Christianity, we experienced disagreements and divisions over the nature of Christ and over the nature of the Trinity. In the 11th century, we experienced the Great Schism, the division that separated the singular Catholic Church into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the 16th century, we experienced the Reformation, the division that separated a number of different Protestant groups from the Roman Catholic Church, including our own Anglican Church. In our own denomination we have experienced division over such issues as slavery and the validity of female priests and bishops. And now The Episcopal Church is experiencing disagreement and division over issues of sexual orientation – should we bless same-sex partnerships and should we ordain bishops who are in same-sex relationships? Throughout history, we the church have dealt with our differences through division and breaking apart.

The problem is that division and separation do not do anything to resolve differences. If anything, division makes the differences more tangible, more felt, more hurtful. And given Jesus’ foundational message of peace and reconciliation, I do not think this is what Jesus intended. Yes, as illustrated in today’s Gospel lesson, he predicted that it would happen. But I don’t think he wanted it to be this way.

Given Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation, I think his statement of division within the family – and again, that would be us, the family that is the church – is not necessarily prescriptive, but rather is descriptive. Disagreement and division will happen. It’s inevitable. But the degree to which it happens, how we chose to handle the division is open. Division does not necessarily mean a breaking apart. That’s not what Jesus wants. I think that today’s Gospel is more of a warning. “Okay guys, you’re going to experience division. What you do with it, how you deal with it, is up to you.”

Even though Jesus talks about division, I have to believe that he has no patience for the petty divisions that detract from the true message of the Gospel. Over the last few weeks, our Gospel lessons have shown us that we are not to allow obsessions with possessions and constant activity to distract us from what is truly important: our relationship with God and with others. We are not to allow our anxieties and fears to get in the way of trusting God and experiencing his faithfulness to us. We are not to allow ourselves to be distracted from preparing and being vigilant in waiting for the kingdom and the eternal life God promises us and is even now preparing for us.

When it comes to obeying God and living the Gospel, Jesus synthesized it all down to two commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Boiled down even further results in love of God and love of others. It’s that simple. All else flows from these. These commandments are primarily demonstrated through love, justice, mercy, and inclusivity. Specifically:

God’s love for us is the standard for love and provides the example whereby we are to have love for others – and not just the people who agree with us.

God’s justice for the marginalized is the standard for justice and provides the example whereby we are called to work for justice for all, particularly for the marginalized.

God’s grace and mercy toward us is the standard for mercy and provides the example whereby we are to be merciful and compassionate toward others, toward all people.

God’s inclusivity of all as his children is the standard for hospitality and provides the example whereby we are to welcome and include all our sisters and brothers around the table.

This was the focus of Jesus’ ministry – in his words and his actions. Jesus believed in this so much he was willing to die for us, so that the world might truly hear and live this Gospel message. What that says to me is that if Jesus was willing to die for that, we as his followers need to focus on living the Gospel message and not the other extraneous stuff that gets in the way – the stuff Jesus never even mentions anyway.

I was a parishioner at St. Francis about 20 years ago when the whole issue of sexual orientation within the church started getting hot and heavy. We had a parishioner who was against the direction in which The Episcopal Church was moving. Knowing that I was on the opposite end of the issue, she took every opportunity to try to convince me I was wrong and she was right. One Sunday after church, she caught me in the parking lot and started in. Before she could get very far, I cut her off and said “Stop. You know where I stand, and I know where you stand. Neither of us is going to change the other’s mind. And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, this is not a salvation issue. The important thing is that you and I are brother and sister in Christ and that despite our opinions and political beliefs, we can come together at the same table and share Eucharist.” I went on to tell her that even though I did not agree with her, I support her right to her own beliefs and encouraged her to do what she felt was necessary – writing the bishop, the national church, or whatever, to make her voice heard. That conversation changed the dynamics of our relationship. The subject never came up again between us, and in many ways, we were closer than we had been before. Focus on issues of sexuality divided us, brother and sister in Christ. Focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought us together.

Of course division will happen. And there’s no way to ignore differences and disagreements. For the health of the family, they need to be dealt with. But that must be done with mutual respect for opposing views and those holding them. The only way we are going to deal with our differences is to focus on living the Gospel. The only way we are going to prevent divisions from becoming needless schisms, is to keep everyone at the table, in conversation, in relationship, with respect, with open minds and hearts, with love.

Otherwise, what happens at that table [pointing to altar] means absolutely nothing.

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

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

God's Faithfulness

11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14) – Year C (RCL)
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Sunday, August 8, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

There are a lot of people who have a hard time relating to the Bible. After all, what do 21st century Americans have in common with people living in the Middle East several thousand years ago? But even though society has progressed considerably, there is one thing that has not changed – human emotions. The emotions we experience today are the same as those experienced by our forefathers and foremothers thousands of years ago. The stories of the Bible record the full spectrum of human emotions. And because of this, I find that even if I can’t relate to the actions taking place, I can generally relate to the emotions being displayed. And I think the way these emotions are dealt with tells us as much, if not more, about our relationship to our God as do the actions portrayed.

In one way or another, all of our lessons for today deal with a common set of emotions – anxiety and fear. In the reading from Genesis, Abram is a little anxious that God has established a covenant with Abram that if he leaves his home and goes to a foreign land, God will bless him and make of him a great nation. Abram has done his part and followed God, but he is still without even a single heir to be the start of this supposed great nation. He expresses his concern to God, who assures Abram that God’s promise will be fulfilled. This is reiterated in the reading from Hebrews, in which the author recounts God’s covenant with Abraham (Abram), who is only one character in a catalog of our forefathers who similarly faced the unknown and the accompanying anxiety and fear. All this to provide examples as the author calls his audience to persevere as they face their own times of anxiety and fear that the eagerly awaited Second Coming has not yet occurred. And in the lesson from Luke, Jesus starts off by telling his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus has already foretold his death twice. The reality of what he is talking about is starting to sink in, and as a result, they are naturally beginning to feel a little anxious and fearful about what the future holds.

Anxiety and fear seem to be particularly pervasive human emotions. In general, much of our anxiety and fear is rooted in uncertainty about the future. That’s certainly the root of the anxiety and fear being exhibited in today’s lessons: uncertainly about when, if ever, God is going to fulfill the promises of the covenant; uncertainly about when Jesus is going to return.

In our own day, we have a lot of anxiety and fear, both personally and collectively. We never know what will happen in the future, and there are times when we don’t worry about it. But then there are times when uncertainty of the future wreaks havoc with us emotionally, such as we are experiencing with the current recession. I’m sure most of us know people who are unemployed, experiencing anxiety and fear about whether they will be able to find work. And as time goes on with no job prospects in sight, there is increasing anxiety and fear about how they will be able to put food on the table or pay rent or the mortgage. There are people who are employed, but due to cutbacks are experiencing anxiety and fear about whether they will have a job next week or next month. There are people who are retired who have seen their investments decimated who are experiencing anxiety and fear about their ability to provide for their future needs. And there are people who are nearing retirement who are experiencing anxiety and fear that they may not be able to afford to retire. Or maybe we ourselves fit into one of these categories, experiencing the anxiety and fear firsthand.

And our churches are similarly experiencing anxiety and fear. They have been for some time as church attendance has declined over the last four or five decades. But particularly in times like these, we experience increased anxiety and fear about how we are going to be able to survive. We need to bring in more members to replenish and energize an aging membership. We need more youth and more children because they are the future of the church and without them, we may be gone in a few generations. We need more money to pay for the increasing cost of church operations and of doing ministry. We experience anxiety and fear at the thought of bringing in new leadership because they might change our worship or our music. We experience anxiety and fear at the prospect of our congregation becoming more liberal or more conservative. All churches experience some of these anxieties and fears at one time or another. Even Trinity.

As people of faith, how do we deal with our anxieties and our fears, both individual and communal? Just as the Bible deals with the full spectrum of human emotions, so too does it provide means of dealing with these emotions. Just as our lessons for today deal with anxiety and fear, they also provide an answer.

Not only do our lessons deal with anxiety and fear, they also are about faithfulness. In Genesis, God assures Abram that he will have a child of his own who will become his heir, and that he will be just the beginning of a great number of descendents. Based on God’s assurances, Abram has faith in what God tells him. In Hebrews, the author expands on the faith of Abraham, extending it to Isaac and Jacob and all subsequent generations. All these generations seeking the land promised by God continue to have faith based on God’s original assurance to Abram. And in Luke, because of the assurances of Jesus to his disciples, they are able to step out in faith and do as he asks.

All three lessons are about how the principals – Abram, his descendents, the disciples, the early Christians – maintained faithfulness to God’s promises, even when they did not see immediate results, when their prayers were not always answered in the ways they would have wanted. Our religion is about having faith in our God and trusting that he will be true to his word, even when we don’t get immediate results. This is borne out in the accounts of salvation history recorded in the pages of the Bible. Even so, as is shown among some of the characters in the Bible, it is sometimes difficult to be faithful in the midst of our own personal anxiety and fear. Our own stuff gets in the way.

Here again, our lessons provide an answer to this struggle with trying to be faithful in the midst of anxiety and fear. Even when we have a hard time being faithful, God is always faithful to us. When Abram expresses his anxiety and fear, God assures him that he will indeed be a great nation. While Abram did not live to see it, we know that God was good to his word, that he was faithful to Abram and to his descendents. And just the assurance that it would happen helped Abram to put aside the anxiety and fear just enough that he was able to trust God, to which God reckoned as righteousness. And Jesus tells his disciples that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God’s good pleasure. God delights in being faithful to us and giving us what he has promised. While the disciples did not see it, and while even we have not seen it – yet – we place our entire faith in fulfillment of that promise, of the coming of the kingdom.

What these stories tell us is that we just have to trust in God, knowing that he will be faithful to us, and provide for us. Maybe not in the timeframe that we want. Maybe not in the way that we want. But we are assured that regardless of the ultimate outcome, in it, God is being faithful to us and to his vision of who we are and who we will become. And in that knowledge of his faithfulness, we can begin to let the anxiety and fear subside, allowing us to be faithful to God in return.

By way of illustration, I want to share a little story about how in a time of my own anxiety and fear, God proved himself faithful to me – not in a way I would have envisioned, but in a way that has ultimately proved to be best for me.

About a year and a half into my position at St. Alban’s Westwood, I started looking for my next position. Seeking a new calling can take 12 to 18 months or even more. Knowing that I would eventually have to leave St. Alban’s when the grant that paid my salary ran out, I started looking. I really wanted to be a rector and applied to a number of places all over the country. I lost count after sending letters of interest to about 20 parishes. Some parishes never responded. Some did not feel I was what they were looking for and rejected me in the early stages of the process. I did manage to get a few interviews, but no jobs came of them. I was starting to get a little concerned. At the end of February, 2009, the half of my job at St. Alban’s ended. One month later, the other half of my job as Episcopal chaplain at UCLA was scheduled to end. Here it was, early March, I was living on only half a salary, and had no job lined up. My last viable prospect had just evaporated. That was when Father David and I began serious conversations about me coming to Trinity as Associate Rector. Three weeks later, I started my current position with you.

During the first three months of 2009, I experienced a lot of anxiety and fear. By the end of March I would be unemployed, and nothing was panning out. In amongst the anxiety and fear, I allowed myself to trust in God, to trust in his faithfulness to me, to trust that God brought me this far and would not abandon me, to trust that something would come available. And it did. Not quite as I expected. But it turns out that while not the type of position I particularly wanted at the time, it was the best possible thing, as this position has provided me with invaluable experiences and opportunities that have helped me to grow and mature as a priest. And when I do become a rector, I will be better prepared because of my experiences here at Trinity.
And that is part of God’s faithfulness to us. Even when things do not go the way we would have them go, it often proves to ultimately be for the better.

Even in the midst of our anxiety and fear, particularly in the midst of our anxiety and fear about the future, we as people of faith are called to trust in our God, knowing that even when we are not faithful to him, he is always faithful to us. Scripture bears that out. And chances are your own lives bear that out. And while we may not always see the results, or have happen what we want to happen, in his faithfulness, God takes care of us. And when things don’t go the way we want, perhaps it’s because God sees a better way of getting us to where we are called to be. So next time you are gripped by anxiety and fear, try putting a little of that emotional energy into trusting God and his faithfulness to you, and see what might happen if you leave the future up to God.

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

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