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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Saturday, August 07, 2010

New Additions to the Family

I’ve been a little busy lately, so have not written anything on the blog about the latest additions to the family – kittens Latimer and Ridley (their names are almost bigger than they are). I got them on Thursday, July 27. They were just over seven weeks old when I got them.

The boys are a handful, spending virtually every waking minute chasing each other around the house and wrestling. Initially they would play for about an hour or two and then sleep for about three or four. Now they seem to be active for three or four hours (and even more) and then nap briefly before starting in again. Their youthful exuberance is so much fun to watch. And they are definitely partners in crime. They do everything together, including eating and using the litter box (or at least one will play in the box while the other is trying to do his business – strange).

As for the names, they are named after English Reformation martyrs,
Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.

Here are a few pics of the little devils.

Latimer on left, Ridley on right

Ridley on left, Latimer on right

Latimer and Ridley praying the Anglican Rosary. Latimer is using the beads to pray and Ridley is making the sign of the cross. They are very pious.


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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Vanity of Vanities

10th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13) – Year C (RCL)
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11;
Luke 12:13-21
Sunday, August 1, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Sorry folks. I hate to tell ya’, but in these words, Jesus is not just speaking to the foolish rich man. He’s also speaking us. No, I don’t mean that we are all going to die tonight, as did the foolish rich man. But I do mean that our lives are being demanded of us as God has already laid claim to our lives by virtue of our baptisms. When we were baptized, brought into the Body of Christ, our lives ceased to be our own. In that moment, as we emerged from the baptismal waters, our lives became God’s. God is free to do with each and every one of us as God sees fit. And right now, God is laying claim to what is His.

The reason for this wake-up call is pretty evident when you look at all three of our lectionary readings. Ecclesiastes talks about how we spend our entire lives toiling in what the writer describes as being “vanity of vanities.” Colossians tells us to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And in Luke, Jesus says “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does no consist in the abundance of possessions.” He then goes on to tell the parable of the foolish rich man which describes the outcome of such actions in no uncertain terms. Looking at the parable of the foolish rich man and filtering it through a 21st century lens, I see two components that we need to be concerned with: possessions and activity.

The most obvious thing being criticized in today’s scripture lessons, particularly in the Gospel, is the accumulation of material possessions. In the parable, the rich landowner is blessed to have had a bumper crop. Unfortunately he doesn’t have large enough facilities to store the surplus – a good problem to have. What to do with all the extra? He has the opportunity to share the wealth with his neighbors, or better yet, to those really in need. But, no. He’s more concerned with holding onto his riches. So he has to find someplace to store the bounty. Instead of doing the rational thing and building additional barns, he tears down the existing barns and builds even bigger ones. He takes the opportunity to flaunt his wealth. If he builds mega-barn, everyone will know he’s wealthy and successful. Unfortunately for him, just about the time he finishes his building project, he dies. He spent his whole time obsessing about his wealth and how to keep and protect it that he never had a chance to enjoy it.

And I’m afraid that in our consumer-oriented society, we have a tendency of following the lead of the foolish rich man. Society says more, more, more. Gotta keep up with the Joneses, or surpass them. Would you like to supersize that? And most of us say “yes.”

In addition to possessions, there is something else that our lessons seek to warn us about – activity, or rather over-activity. We see it with the foolish rich man who engages in a frenzy of activity in his massive building project. And Ecclesiastes talks about constant toil so that even “at night their minds do not rest.” Humanity is beset by some sort of need for constant activity.

But in our own day, I think we have managed to elevate the art of being overly active, of overextending ourselves, to an art form. It’s almost become a perverse form of status, a badge of honor, to be so busy you don’t know if you’re coming or going. We all do it. I have to admit that I catch myself doing it. I am sooooo busy today. I have to lead a Bible study and then meet with the rector and then I have to see three parishioners in the hospital – one at Redlands Community, one at Loma Linda, and one at Kaiser Fontana. Then I have to write my sermon for Sunday, do a conference call, write an article for the Messenger, go to a committee meeting, plan the fall adult education program, and go to a vestry meeting. And then after lunch . . .

You get the idea. But I’m finding this phenomenon seems to be more and more pervasive. When you ask someone how they are, more often than not, you get a litany of what they’ve been doing or what they have to do. And sadly, it’s gotten to the point that even our children are doing it. Recently I was talking with a young person, asking how the summer break was going, and I got a list of all the things and activities this person was doing. It made me tired just listening to it. I can sort of understand this in adults. It makes us look, or at least feel, valuable and indispensible in the workplace. It makes us look like the success-driven go-getters that society expects us to be. But our children? What happened to just being a kid, enjoying some time off from school, spending time with friends, or just laying around and doing nothing?

Ecclesiastes has a term for all this. Vanity of vanities. Not vanity as in self-obsession, though that certainly fits in many instances. The Hebrew word we translate as vanity really means vapor or breath, something illusory, meaningless, empty. The other term Ecclesiastes uses is “chasing after wind.” In other words, all of this, our pursuit of possessions and our obsession with activity, these things that seem so important to humans, is not what really matters. Quite the opposite. If anything, these things, our obsession with possessions and activity distracts us from what is truly important.

Just as criticism of our views toward possessions and activity comes from our readings for the day, so too do they provide a corrective – maybe not directly, but the corrective is certainly implied in the meaning of the parable of the foolish rich man, as well as in Ecclesiastes’ assertion that all these things are vanity and chasing after wind.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with worldly goods and success, with having big houses, fancy cars, nice things, etc. We work hard. It’s okay to reward ourselves. It’s not the possessions in and of themselves that are problematic, but rather our obsession with them. It’s the building up of material goods, the drive to get more even when we already have enough or more than enough. What the scriptures are really saying is that we need to be careful not to become so focused on getting more, striving for bigger and better. In spending so much time and energy on acquisition and maintenance, we don’t have time to enjoy what we do have. In focusing our energy on getting more, we are thinking about ourselves and what labors went into getting all this stuff, failing to recognize God’s hand in the bounty we have. In becoming self-absorbed with what we are doing for our selves, because we deserve it, we fail to recognize the needs of those who are on the margins and how we could possibly share out of our bounty. In the drive for more, we get wrapped up in the thrill of getting, not realizing that we have way more than we need or could possibly use. We are unable to discern what really is enough.

It’s all about personal stewardship of the resources we have. True stewardship entails careful use and care of what we have. This does mean saving some surplus for the future – for retirement, for a rainy day. But stewardship is more than this. Good stewardship also entails recognizing the source of all we have and giving thanks to God for what we have. And good stewardship entails care for one’s neighbors, providing for the poor and marginalized, particularly when we have more than enough.

And then there’s dealing with over-activity. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes speaks to this when he tells us that all our human activity is ultimately vanity of vanity, is chasing after wind. While we think everything we do is of upmost important, the reality is that a lot of it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things. Working 70 hours a week as opposed to a standard 40 hour work week probably won’t make a significant difference in the quality of our lives, other than taking us away from our loved ones. Having extracurricular activities are important to help relieve the stress from our workaday lives and help make us well-rounded persons, but are they really beneficial if we just end up stressing about how we are going to get everything done: the job, the 20 or 30 different activities we do, not to mention household chores, and oh yeah, spending time, real quality time, with our loved ones? And we haven’t even factored in yet, where do we find time for God in all of this frenetic activity? Where and how do we take a little time to give thanks to the God who has given us so much, to praise him for the beauty of creation, to check in and let him know how we’re doing, what our concerns are?

What we tend to forget is that there’s a reason for Sabbath, and I mean real Sabbath, not just a day off to fill with back-to-back activities. Sabbath is about giving us the time we need to slow down and catch up with ourselves, to catch up with and spend time with our loved ones, to spend time with the One who created us and gives us all we have and all that we are. That’s why the Jewish religion mandates a day of Sabbath with minimal activity – to focus on self, family, and God, not on going, doing, rushing around. Sabbath time is an invitation to renewed relationship with God, and with one another – relationship that does not happen on the fly, but can only really happen when we are intentional about it, by being present to those we love and being present to our God.

The statements made in today’s lessons, and the correctives they provide are not meant to be pessimistic statements about human existence or to provide onerous requirements. Rather, they are an observation of how we can get carried away and lose sight of what is truly important. These correctives are really meant to be liberating, to free us from our focus on possessions, our obsession with ceaseless activity, and to give us the space we need to focus on care of self; care for our loves ones; care for others, including our neighbors and the marginalized; and nurture of our relationship with our God. We are meant to be free to have time to enjoy life and all that it brings as a gift from God.

Today’s lessons, while seemingly harsh, are therefore expressed out of loving concern. It’s not so much that our life is being demanded of us as that we are being invited into another way of being. We are invited to slow down and discern what God is calling us to do with our possessions, our time and our activity. We are invited to evaluate our standard of what is enough. We are invited to determine what is truly important in our lives. We are invited to examine our understanding of God’s blessings and our purpose in life. And we are invited to do this in partnership with God, in renewed relationship with the One without whom our lives really are nothing more than vanity of vanities and a chasing after wind.

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

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