Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Irrational Season

     In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.     – Luke 1:26-38

     I saw an angel once.

     I was standing in the check-out line at a 7-11 one day.  In front of me was an old man, stooped like he was carrying a heavy burden.  The clerk was a short, heavyset Hispanic girl – acne scarred her young face.  She was not particularly attractive.  He finished his purchase and then just began to talk to the girl, "My wife died a month ago…" he said.  He went on to speak of her cancer… the long months of losing her bit by bit… and his loneliness now that she was no longer in his life after so many years.  As his sad story unfolded, I glanced at the girl, and she had the most gentle, listening expression on her face.  And, maybe it was my imagination, but as she listened, it seemed to me there was a glow, a gentle light all around her, and she changed… she became one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.  When he was done, he just kind of nodded quietly to himself, picked up his purchase, and left.  The glow around this girl seemed to fade and she became just an ordinary kind of homely girl once again.  She seemed to come out of the trance, and looked at me rather embarrassed and asked, "Why did he tell me that?"  All I could say was, "He needed to tell someone, and you were kind enough to listen."

     Angels show up in the most unusual places.  Angels showed up in the middle of the desert to an old man and his wife.  In Genesis 17, they appeared and told Abraham that, at ninety-nine years of age, he and his wife Sarah, who was ninety, were going to have a son.  Sarah listening behind the tent curtain laughed.  Quite impossible.  Irrational.  And yet, at that same time the next year, a beautiful baby boy was born, and they named him Isaac, which means laughter. 

     In Exodus we read of Moses telling the greatest empire of his day, Egypt, to let God's people go.  Completely out of the question.  Ridiculous.  Yet in Exodus 14, we read of God's angel who led a captive people, the Israelites, out of Egypt by acting as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Who would've thought an angel would've shown up to help out a bunch of slaves?

     And in our Gospel today, the Angel Gabriel shows up in this little backwater town of Galilee called Nazareth, terrifying and beautiful, his wings woven of starlight, radiating power and love, and speaks to this teenaged peasant girl, and promises the impossible… that Mary would have a child.  But even more irrational and impossible, that God would no longer be far off, sending others with messages for his people, but that God would come among us in the flesh – not in fire, or thunder, or lightning, or smoke – not with trumpets and fanfare – but that God would come among us, small and tiny and helpless; and that we could touch his soft velvet cheek, and his mom could play piggies with his toes… and God would smile and giggle.

     The most impossible, irrational, ridiculous thing of all happened: No longer would women and men have to reach up to God, because God was coming down to meet us here.  Because of the bravery of one teenage girl, all of human history changed.

     Thank you, Mary for not being afraid of what others would say; for not being afraid of shame; for not being afraid of what Joseph and your family would think. Thank you, Mary, for saying yes to the impossible… to the irrational. 

     Isn't it amazing how much of God's plan God was willing to place into fragile human hands?  God was willing to place into the aged, wrinkled hands of Abraham and Sarah the birth of a nation.

     God was willing to place into the hands of a sheepherder and a former murderer, Moses, the deliverance of the Israelites.

     God was willing to place the nurture and care and love of his only son into the arms of this teenaged peasant girl.

     God was willing to place the protection of his son and mother into the rough hands of an uneducated carpenter, Joseph.

     And God is willing to place into your hands and my hands today God's plans for our own time.

     Angels appear in the most unlikely places, at the strangest times, telling us of impossible, irrational things.  For some people, Angels appear slowly over time… they come as a feeling or a certainty about what they should do.  For others, they strike like the blinding light struck Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9.  Some people just glimpse God's plan for them out of the corner of their eyes… it's elusive… if they turned to look at it directly it seems to disappear, but it's always there.

     In Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass Alice said, "One can't believe impossible things."
“I dare say you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

     So what seems impossible to you this morning?  Maybe you're struggling with the loss of someone so dear to you that it seems impossible you could ever smile again.  Maybe your life has been in such a mess that you feel like it's never going to straighten out.  Perhaps something has caused you to lose your faith, and it seems impossible you're ever going to regain it.  Whatever burden you might be carrying today that seems impossible to deal with, I offer to you the irrational words of the Angel Gabriel:
"For nothing shall be impossible with God."

     It's not just we as individuals who have a problem believing impossible things; the whole world has this problem. And to these things that the world thinks are impossible, that the world considers irrational, the Angel Gabriel has a ready answer.

      “It's impossible to feed all the poor of the world.”
     And Gabriel says, "Nothing shall be impossible with God"

      “It's impossible to return love for hate.”
     And Gabriel says, "Nothing shall be impossible with God"

      “It's impossible to make sure every child has good prenatal care.”
     And Gabriel says, "Nothing shall be impossible with God."

      “It's impossible to love my neighbor as I love myself.”
     And Gabriel says, "Nothing shall be impossible with God."

      “It's impossible that we can establish complete equity and justice in our land.”
     And Gabriel says, "Nothing shall be impossible with God."

     Nothing… nothing…… nothing!

     God came down to us at Christmas… The most impossible thing of all… So that we might believe the impossible is possible.

     So, the next time the Angel Gabriel stops by your house, what are you going to say?  Will you say…

     “Who me?”
     “I can't do that.”
     “I don't have the time.”
     “I'm too old to change.”
     “I’m too young.”
     “I'm just one person.”
     “That's irrational!”
     “That's impossible!”

     Or maybe, just maybe you will you take a chance and trust the God of the impossible…
     and burdens you been carrying in your life will be lifted…
     and you will be able to love people who are completely unlovable…
     and the hungry will be fed…
     and justice will be done…

     Maybe, just maybe, you like Mary will say to the angel, "Let it be with me according to your word."  And the world will never be the same again.

     Madeline L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, and a great writer in our Episcopal tradition once wrote:

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason,
There had been no room for the child!


Thursday, November 24, 2011

This Sermon is Sponsored by Walmart

      ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.        – Matthew 6:25-33
      Happy Thanksgiving!  I am so thankful all of you are here. 

     Budgets are tight across all America – even in our churches.  So, to bring in a little extra cash into the church, my sermon this morning has been sponsored by Meadowood Mall, Summit Mall, the Legends at Sparks Marina, Walmart, and Target.  So, on behalf of  "More Choices" Meadowood,  "Shop in Style"  Summit, "100% Style at Up to 60% off" Legends, "Save money.  Live better."  Walmart, and "Expect more, Pay Less" Target, They wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. 

     But given the economy, each of the sponsors of my sermon this morning asks that you not to be too thankful.  You see, tomorrow is Black Friday – to be precise at 12:00 AM tomorrow / midnight tonight – and, if you are too thankful for what you have, you're not likely to be rushing out to buy lots of stuff.  And that is bad for corporate America.  Alright, I'm kidding.  I have written to all these stores asking for sponsorship of my sermon today, but I haven't heard back yet.  So, the sponsorships are still pending.

     Today's Gospel somehow doesn't sound very in tune with the commercial shopping season, does it?
The messages we've on our TV's and radios since Halloween (or was it Labor Day?) all say, "Buy stuff - buy stuff - buy stuff!"  But Jesus this morning says, "I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"  This seems completely unrealistic.  Preparing this sermon, I had to ask myself, "Have I ever really done this?"  I mean, have I ever really not worried?  I don't know that a day has gone by in my life where I haven't worried about my kids and my family, and/or my job, and/or, the poor polar bears and global warming, and/or traffic, and/or weather, and/or whether people liked me.

     And I worry about money, even though – did you know?  I'm a very rich man.  I didn't realize it until I did a little math. I know you were promised that if you came to church on Thanksgiving, there would be no math, but stick with me.  Let me tell you about my results.  Worldwide 1.7 billion people are in poverty - this is just 11% absolute poverty; it doesn't even include relative poverty.  The United Nations' definition of absolute poverty is living on less than $1.25/day.  I figured that for most of us here at Trinity we earn in about half a day, what takes an entire year for the poorest people on earth to make.

     It does no good to say, "Well Rick, you got an education and worked hard for many years."  I put my heart and soul into what I do, but you can't tell me I work harder than poor people.  If we paid people based on how hard people work, mothers in famine stricken parts of Africa should be billionaires.  So... I'm a very rich man... and over and over in my mind I keep hearing the words of Jesus in Luke 12:48: "To whom much is given, much is required."

     We have gotten out of practice of being grateful.  About 400 years ago on another continent there was a Lutheran pastor named Martin Rinkhart. He lived in Eilenberg in Saxony and it was during the siege of the Thirty Years War.   We've just been through a devastating fire that destroyed 35 homes – Eilenberg was a walled city that was surrounded and 800 homes were burned, and the people within suffered from the plague, from starvation, and it got to the point where the pastors within that town, within that village were burying 12 people a day.  Pretty soon the pastors themselves started to die and Martin Rinckart was the only pastor left. He was conducting 50 funerals a day, can you imagine? Fifty funerals a day. He buried over 5,000 people that year, including his own wife. 

     When the war ended in 1648 he sat down, and listen to the words that he penned:
 Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers' arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
      You probably recognize the words – they're hymn #397.    This was a man who knew horrors beyond all we can think and imagine, getting on his knees and leading people in praise and thanks to our God.  [Deb Kielsmeier, "Thanksgiving," Nov. 25, 2004, Christ Presbyterian Church Web Site,]

     Once you realize how blessed you are, and how grateful you are, you can't help but begin to see the ways each of us squanders and wastes and hoards.  It creates a tension in your heart, doesn't it?  Now, I'm not recommending calling off Thanksgiving or all shopping, but instead, I'm saying we should go deeper into it. 

     I pray that today's Thanksgiving will open our eyes and ears to the Creator of all things.  That it will open our imaginations to a God who passionately loves all life.  That on this day, we open our souls in thanksgiving for all our fellow human beings and creatures and the earth itself.  That we open our hearts to affirm that all that we have comes from God who gives everything away and would teach us that same path of stewardship and living. May we open our very beings to a God who says to you and to me, to rich and poor... to every race, to every country...every nation, to those of us who will go home to roasting turkeys... and to those who will not, "Could you worry a little less?  Be a little less anxious about your life?"  "The outcome is not in doubt; there is enough in my abundant creation for all."

     We pray, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven..."  Just imagine this Thanksgiving Day if we weren't anxious; if we didn't stockpile and hoard; if we didn't buy into the myth of scarcity!  But instead, if we truly believed in God's abundance and providence.  If we opened our hearts and our hands.  What would the world be like?  If we truly believed we had enough and maybe didn't need whatever the hottest selling must-have gizmo is going to be at the stores tomorrow.  Everyone would have enough.  Everyone would be fed and clothed and have access to clean water, the way God intended!  Most wars are over wanting what others have.  Maybe even war itself would end, peace would come, and we would finally take the time to sit down as one world and learn to truly love our fellow human beings.

     And that... that might just be the Kingdom.  Amen.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Church!

     Take a look at this inspiring video. Whatever you think of the Occupy movement, if we could capture this same spirit in our churches, what a difference it would make!


     Thank you to Counterlight's Peculiars for making me aware of this!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Don't Feed the Donkeys! Don't harrass the a... um... burros!

     Only in Nevada would you read a story like this!
         The federal government has a warning for sightseers passing through Nevada’s rural roads: Don’t feed the donkeys.
     A person who harasses the asses may also be fined (It was just too good not to say!)  Read the whole story here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011



by Matthew R. Brown

It is the glory of the Church that it cannot name all the saints.
It is the glory of the Church that it cannot remember all the saints.
It is the glory of Christ that we cannot count all the saints.
Saints are found behind all the rocks of the mountain.
Saints are found among the trees of the wood.
Saints hide in blossoms, ride birds, top clouds; follow passages under the earth.
They sweep the floors of the universe.
They take out the garbage of the cosmos.
The seeds they scatter soften and green the hillsides; leaves open their hands; joyful beasts wander among trees, cling to grassy slopes.
The faithful cling to the roots of the saints, growing up from the ground.

Monday, October 31, 2011

One of You is the Messiah

     The following is my own adaptation of a well-known Yiddish folktale.  If you are part of a church or synagogue that has struggled to bring in new members, I think there is a message in the story for you.  As a Christian, the church is my mother; but Judaism is my grandmother, and I love them both.  For all the incredible gimmicks that purport to attract and keep new members – everything from "Invite a Friend to Church Sunday," to bringing in visiting consultants, to expensive media campaigns – we might do better to listen to the wisdom of our grandmother.

     Once upon a time in the old country, there was a synagogue that had fallen on hard times. Only five members were left: except for one young boy, all of them were over sixty years old.

     In the mountains near the synagogue there lived an old retired rabbi. It occurred to the five to ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the synagogue. One of the more able members, a 62-year-old man by the name of Moishe, made the arduous climb up the mountain arriving late in the afternoon.  The old rabbi welcomed him humbly.  Sitting down to tea the old rabbi had prepared, the member of the declining synagogue spoke at length about the discouragement his congregation faced.  He described all of the different ways they had tried to attract new members: invite neighbors, provide programs for younger people, make their worship more upbeat and joyful, even going door to door inviting former members of the synagogue to return.  Nothing worked.  Finally, the member ran out of words as evening came on.  In desperation, he asked, "Rabbi, what should we do?"  After a long silence, the rabbi simply responded by saying, "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is, the Messiah is one of you."  Stunned by this great news, Moishe, returning to the synagogue, and told the four other members what the rabbi had said. 

     In the months that followed, the synagogue members pondered the words of the rabbi. "The Messiah is one of us?" they each asked themselves.

     They began to look around themselves at the other people in the congregation trying to figure out which one of them could be the Messiah.

     "Surely it couldn't be Schwartzman.  He's so old, he was around when God created dirt."  But as they thought about it, they wondered if maybe he could be the Messiah.  He certainly has a lot of wisdom, and he has been around longer than all of us – maybe he could be the Messiah.

     And then they thought, "Certainly it can't be young Jacob.  He's just a boy."  But as they thought about it, they wondered if maybe he could be the Messiah.  He certainly was a bright and good boy.

     And then they thought, "Of course, it can't be Miriam.  She's got a personality as sour as old gefilte fish."  But as he thought about it, they wondered if maybe she could be the Messiah.  Certainly the Messiah would be discouraged by some of the things that go on in our village.  The Torah and the prophets said nothing about the Messiah being a woman, but maybe God was doing a new thing.

     And so it went… as they thought about these possibilities, they all began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that, one among them might be the Messiah ... and on the off-chance that each member himself or herself might be the Messiah, they also began to treat themselves with extraordinary care.

     As time went by, people visiting the synagogue noticed the aura of respect and gentle kindness that surrounded the five members of the small synagogue. Hardly knowing why, more people began to come back to worship at the old synagogue. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought more friends.

     I've been a fan of Yiddish literature since I was in college, and I believe there is an incredible depth of wisdom contained in them.  If you are interested in exploring Yiddish literature further, I would recommend the original book that caused me to fall in love with this genre: A Treasury of Yiddish Stories edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg.  My personal favorite is entitled "If Not Higher" by I.  L. Peretz.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Angels Trapped in Granite

     When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’                                                                    – Matthew 22:34-40
     The Pharisees huddled in a corner of the temple trying to structure a question that would trip up Jesus. Finally they thought they had it: “Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?” They were going to give him just enough rope to hang himself. They were to let him talk, and then, whatever he said, pick him apart like the front runner in a GOP presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas.

     According to Jewish tradition, the Torah contained a total of 613 distinct commandments. It seemed a foolproof trap: kind of like asking an attorney what's the most important of the twenty-seven amendments to the constitution? If you say the First Amendment (freedom of speech, the press, religion, and right to assemble), you immediately will be attacked: "What about the Fifth Amendment? Don't you think it's important to have due process if you're accused of crime? Do you support the right of government to just throw someone in jail because they don't like their political views?" If you say the 19th Amendment which as we all know gave women the right to vote, you'd be attacked: "You think that's more important than the 13th Amendment? The one that abolished slavery in the United States?" Jesus knew what they were up to. He said, in essence, “You missed it again, guys. It really takes two commandments to make the great commandment.”

     He started with what is called the Shema. They all knew it – all pious Jews had to recite the Shema, a quote from Deuteronomy 6, twice a day:
     Hear, O Israel: the lord is our God, the lord alone. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
     The love of God has priority over everything else. Jesus takes that memorized set of verses they recited twice a day and extends it. He says the commandment to love your neighbor is like unto that first commandment, making it equally the greatest commandment. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" from Leviticus 19:18 is preceded by, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people," then comes, "but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It seems like Jesus is explaining that to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we can't be filling our hearts with grudges against others. Our lists of wrongs take up precious space where we need to be absorbing the infinite goodness of God. I think Jesus wants us to see that we are taking up precious "soul space" with grudges... space within us that could be used to hold God instead.

     So how do you know if you love God? Teresa of Avila once said, “We cannot know whether we love God, although there may be strong reason for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or not.” 1 John. 4:20, 21 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

     It's an easy concept, but how do you do it? How do you go about loving your neighbor in the real world? C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity talks about how to do this practically:
     Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love' your neighbor, act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.
     In 2002, a newspaper report said that German police were investigating reports of screams coming from an apartment in the town of Offenbach found a 76-year-old woman practicing for a yodeling diploma. The police statement said, “The officers weren’t able to judge whether the neighbors were unfamiliar with Bavarian folk music, or whether the lady still requires a lot of practice.

     We won't always love our neighbor perfectly, but we can practice, and the feelings will follow.

     So we understand we're supposed to love God, and we get the point that we do that by loving our neighbor, but so often we skip over the last part of what Jesus said: "…love your neighbor as yourself." On the surface it seems natural to say that of course we love ourselves. We certainly have selfish motivations. I want my own way. We do things that feel good to us, no matter how they hurt other people. But I wonder if most of us truly love ourselves in the sense of accepting ourselves as we are – our good parts… and our broken pieces. We say such terrible things to ourselves: "What's wrong with me? Why am I so stupid? It's my own fault!" We look at others, and we just automatically assume they're happier than we are, their marriages are better, they don't have the same worries we do. But all of us carry around terrible burdens on our hearts. I guarantee you the person sitting next to you in the pew is carrying some kind of burden on her or his heart that you don't know about. But if we were just a little bit gentler to ourselves, maybe we'd realize that everyone is carrying the same burdens… burdens of their own… and then we could be gentler to them. So many people are hurting. If we broaden our definition of neighbor, we might see it.

     When I was teaching, I used to tell my students they were all my favorites. I'd say, "Sally gets to pass out papers because she's my favorite," and then ten minutes later, I'd say, "Mark gets to be first in the lunch line because he's my favorite." Someone would always say, "Hey, I thought you said Sally was your favorite!" and I smile and say, "She is." And they’d look at me as if to say, "You're the weirdest teacher we've ever had,"…and they were right.

     I had a student once named Ian, and that boy was a pain. He never did his homework; he always had an excuse. He never turned anything in on time, and everything was sloppy and half completed. Ian got to be my "favorite" a lot, I think because he really wasn't… and I felt guilty about that. Part of the population of my school came from the daily motels and rundown small houses scattered around the edges of downtown Reno. Around Thanksgiving, my school would collect enough food to create boxes of entire Thanksgiving dinners for poor students, and then we would go out on Thanksgiving eve and deliver them. Ian's house was on our schedule that year. We pulled up to the curb, and there was this rundown house sitting in the middle of a mud field. Ian was just standing there in the middle of the mud field huddled in his coat. It was a miserable, cold day, and it was getting dark, and I assumed Ian was playing outside, but he didn't look like he was playing – he was just kind of standing there. I carried the box of Thanksgiving dinner across the mud, trying not to think about was happening to my dress shoes. I tried to be cheerful, "Ian!" I said, "We’ve brought you Thanksgiving dinner!" He looked as excited as if I had told him he'd just won a trip to Disneyland. Then I found out why he was standing in the middle that field. He said, "I'm not supposed to go into the house until my dad gets home, but there's a broken window in the back, and I can let you in." We went up to the house. There was a pitiful old dog chained in the mud. Ian reached through the broken window in the back and opened the door. The house had maybe three tiny cold rooms. Ian told me I could set the box of food on the heater – it was a big square standalone thing in the center of the living room with a bare pipe running into the wall. I said, "Ian, I don't think it's a good idea to set a cardboard box on your heater." Ian cheerfully replied, "That's okay it hasn't worked since last year." I trudged back through the mud to my car and all I could think was, "God forgive me for not understanding the burden this little boy was carrying." After that, whenever I said Ian was my favorite… I meant it.

     When you think of things that are holy, what you think of? The altar? This church? The water in the font? Rarely, does the thought of your neighbor enter your mind first.  C. S. Lewis said, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal ... But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors ... Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

     The great painter and sculptor Michelangelo once bought a piece of inferior-looking granite which no one else would buy. Asked why he'd bought it he said, "Because there's an angel in there, and I must set it free." When Michelangelo was working on a sculpture, he didn't use the usual method of working on the figure from all sides. Michelangelo used to work from the front and carve back so that the figure emerged, as if it had been trapped in the stone, as if he was freeing it. Michelangelo looked at the piece of granite, which no one else wanted, and saw an angel needing to be set free. God looks at us, and sees our fears and our limitations, the things which lock us in. God also sees our abilities, our inner beauty, our potential. God sees the angel inside us waiting to be set free. God is the sculptor who brings forth our true created selves. As we open ourselves to God, allowing that sculpting to take place, we become aware of that beauty within ourselves… and within others.

     When you read about the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34, you learn he never made it to the Promised Land; he only got to look over at it.  What you think of when you think the Promised Land? Milk and honey? Rest? Peace? So many of us are like Moses. We look over at the Promised Land, but we don't cross into it. Don't be like Moses. Don't just look over into the Promised Land. Cross the Jordan. Go into that good land. When one thinks of the Promised Land, one big thought that comes to my mind is a land where holy and just people live – a people who are loving and compassionate toward each other. They see the burdens each other is carrying and, day by day, they try in small ways, to lighten their load.

     There is a road that God has built that leads into the Promised Land, but the road often passes by dilapidated houses sitting in the middle of mud fields, and broken windows, and heaters that don't work, and little kids huddled into their coats. It passes by heartaches that we carry inside ourselves that no one else sees, but we pray that someone else… some day… will see.

     There is a road that God has built that leads into the Promised Land. It starts at your front door… but it leads… it leads through your neighbor's yard.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Month of Gratitude on Facebook

Spend the month of November exploring "Gratitude". Scripture readings, writing prompts, surveys, movies, and prayers will be posted daily, Monday through Friday of each week. Check in every day for something new or just drop in when you have the time. Click the "Like" button below to be part of the experience! Everyone is welcome!

Friday, October 7, 2011

"Do you have services?" – The Trials and Joys of Serving in a Downtown Church

     Wednesday, the doorbell buzzed at the Parish Hall.  I was close, so I answered it.  Outside, waiting impatiently, was a man in a suit.  I opened the door and greeted him, and he asked, "Do you have services here?"  I responded, "Yes..." but before I could give him our service times, he thrust a piece of paper at me and said, "I need twelve copies of this."

     <<< sigh >>>

Simon's Cat in "Double Trouble"

For anyone who, like me, has a house with two cats in it...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The New Google+ vs. Facebook

     My close friends know that I was kind of shamed into rejoining Facebook after a long absence by a circle of older ladies who were incredulous I was so behind the times.  It's odd that I didn't immediately take to Facebook since I am kind of a technogeek.  Balancing out my technogeekyness, however, is a very strong sense of my own privacy.  It would not occur to me to share personal details I see posted on Facebook (by people other than my own friends, of course, who only post intelligent and sensitive observations that enrich and inspire.)  Since I'm already on that slippery Facebook slope, the technogeek in me won the battle to check out the new Google+ service that became available today to everyone without an invitation.  You may click here if you're so excited about this you wish to join Google+ immediately without reading the rest of my review of this new service ►  For those of you who can contain yourselves a bit longer, here's my thoughts on it.

     First Impressions:  Not much different than Facebook.  The box along the top asks you to post a status update.  To the left you'll see your various "circles" or groups of friends, much like the new groups update to Facebook.  To the right you'll see suggestions of new friends and a place to receive invitations to events.

     Privacy Controls:  Naturally, the first place I want to look at was my privacy settings.  They're not much different from Facebook's new ones.  I also had to go into my settings and turn off the options that E-mail you every time there's any activity on your Google+ account.  My thinking with both Facebook and Google+ is I'll check-in when I feel like checking in; the last thing I need is a bunch of updates in my E-mail inbox telling me what everyone else had for lunch and that they've uploaded new baby pictures.

     Digging a Little Deeper:  There are some unique and kind of cool things on Google+ you won't find on Facebook.

     Major Cool Feature #1:  Hangouts – What they are is basically Skype, but you can videoconference with more than one person at the same time.  You can choose which circle of friends or family have access to a hangout you create.  For me, instead of just Skyping with my daughter in Texas, we can now hold family conversations with all of us in the same room.  Everyone with whom you’re videoconferencing shows up in boxes underneath the main picture.  There's also Hangouts with Extras, which has some cool features (see below) that might be very useful if you're actually working on a group project.  For me, it's just kind of neat to be able to have my whole family in a single room seeing each other and talking.
     Major Cool Feature #2:  Huddle – Naturally, Google+ has an app for your smartphone.  Huddle allows you to create what amounts to a conference call while you're texting.  Everyone sees everyone else's text in the group, so if you're planning a dinner, for example, you can text with everyone simultaneously and get a date and time set.  This will also probably be a major cool feature for young people to chat with their friends.

     Now we move from the Major Cool Features to what I would describe as the "Meh" Features.

     Meh Feature #1: Instant Upload – Pictures on your smart phone will automatically sync with the private album on your Google+ account.  Instead of having to upload pictures one at a time, you'll have them right there for easy access.  It simplifies things, but I don't know how I feel about Google having instant access to every photo I take.

Meh Feature #2: Sparks – This sounds to me basically like a glorified Google search.  Supposedly, you enter things in which you are interested such as "The Episcopal Church" and Google+ will steer you toward websites, blogs, etc. in your area of interest so you'll always have something to read.  I'll give it a try, but it sounds more like I'm being mined so Google can produce more targeted ads.

     While Google+ has some great new features, the biggest drawback I can see is none of my friends are on it yet.  I'll certainly encourage my family to open Google+ accounts so we can use the Hangout feature, but it seems like a lot of work for most folks to migrate over to a new platform.  We'll see – that's probably what they said about MySpace when Facebook came along.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


     The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. – Exodus 16:2
     For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. – Philippians 1:21
     Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner… – Matthew 20:10,11

     It's what I felt ten years ago as a teacher trying to explain to young children what had just happened at the World Trade Center in New York City. The children were afraid, and my job as a teacher was to reassure them that they were safe with me in school, even though I was just as afraid.


     It's what I felt Friday night as I watched over two hours of coverage of the tragedy at the Reno Air Races. Finally, I just had to turn the TV off. I had gone from being afraid and horrified to simply being numb, as the video of the accident looped over and over again. I gave up working on my sermon, and just went to bed, turned out the lights, and prayed.

     We spend so much of our lives afraid. We naturally experience fear when we have to deal with terrible tragedies: The shootings in Carson City last week; the devastation of the hurricane on the East Coast; the suffering of the Japanese in the wake of the tsunami; the poor people of the nation of Haiti. But just in the day-to-day living of our lives, so much of what makes our decisions for us is fear.

     In our readings today, the Children of Israel were afraid: Afraid that there wouldn't be enough to eat; afraid that they would die of thirst. We live in constant fear of both living and dying. Yet in our reading in Philippians today, we hear Paul saying he's neither afraid to live nor afraid to die. And because he had let go of fear, he was able to act, and to teach, and to love. Even in our Gospel reading today, we see the commonest of all fears: Those who had worked in the vineyard all day were angry that those who had only worked a couple hours were paid the same. That anger was based in a common fear we all share: The fear that someone else will do better than we will. That they will somehow get ahead of us in this life that we so often turn into a rat race. And because we live in our own skin, we think our own personal fears are unique, but they're not.

     Michael Bernard Loggins is an adult living in San Francisco with developmental disabilities. He wrote a little book about his fears entitled Fears of Your Life. He says of his book, “I write down my fears, my scariness and my frightfulness. This is an understanding process. It helps me real good.” You and I may not seem to have a lot in common with a developmentally disabled 40-year-old man, but I invite you to listen to some of his fears and see if we don't share some just like his. 
  • Fear of hospitals and needles.
  • Click here to order book.
  • Fear of school and dentists.
  • Fear of black cats.
  • Fear of monsters being under my bed.
  • Fear of intruders coming to the house to steal things and hurt us all.
  • Fear of being followed.
  • Fear of dogs.
  • Fear strangers.
  • Fear of timebombs.
  • Feared of being left in the house alone afraid that there would be an earthquake in few more seconds.
  • Feared that if you are bad or naughty no one's isn't going to love you anymore.
  • People are fearful of me which I wonder is they think I am all that terrible or I'm thinking that they think I'm not human at all because when they sit next to me than they get back up and move away from me i may be a stranger but that doesn't make me a created monster or something like that… They don't think who's feelings they hurt at all they just do it no consideration for whatever.
  • Fear of you never known you were gonna lose your mother is very sad and scary experience you have to face and learn from and you wonder why she has to die I love her – and I had loved her once while she were alive. Especially if she was the mother that raised you and the others through birth and you only wish that you could have done all you can to help save her life. It gonna be a worse times and hard times for Michael Bernard Loggins and his sisters and brothers too. Especially when Mother's day comes.
      Yet, this man who faces so many challenges in his life also shares his wisdom about fears with us:
  • Does fear makes you smart or does it takes you over? It tries…
  • Want to know more about fears: and what it can happen to you if you still be afraid and you hasn't really truly over come the kind of fear that you happens to have on you? You look like you'll almost never get your chance of over coming it like if you are home alone.
  • Life will be… no matter what the circumstances will be. Whether it's good – bad – or worse than what it seems or even those things kind of get wacky, or slightly out of hand, soon or later, these things blows over and return to what they will be.
      I think Michael Bernard Loggins is right: Fear can take over your life. You'll never get over fear hiding alone at home. And finally, in life these things blow over and return to what they will be.

     It is tempting to blame tragedy on God. But God was not behind the throttle of the airplane Friday. There was just a good man by all accounts, an excellent pilot, yet human frailty or a mechanical failure – we don't know – overtook him. It was an accident.

     But I know where God was because I saw him on TV. I saw God in over a hundred people in the grandstands who responded to the plea for anyone with medical training to come help. I saw God in the many people who had no medical training who stayed and helped get the wounded to safety and comfort the terrified and grieving. And I see God in all the good, good people of this Valley who hold the victims of this tragedy up in prayer.

     Last week on 9/11, we talked about forgiveness. This week we consider fear. Next week, we will talk about the future. I am convinced that without forgiveness; without letting go of harm that has been done to us either intentionally or just because of the randomness of life… all that remains is fear. I am convinced that without looking to a future of love; without believing the God whose name is love is already standing there waiting in all our tomorrows no matter what they bring… all that remains is fear. I am also equally convinced that if we will unclench our fists and allow God to carry the burden of our fears… all that will remain is love.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Prayer for The Tragedy at the Reno Air Races

     O merciful God, you have taught us you do not willingly afflict or grieve your children: look with pity upon the sorrows of the family and friends of those who died and those who were injured at the Air Races. Remember in your mercy, those who died and hold their souls close to your heart. For the injured and those who grieve, and for we who are simply stunned and aching because of this accident, nourish all our souls with patience, comfort us with a sense of your goodness, lift up your countenance upon us, and give us peace

     We pray also for the emergency workers, doctors, nurses, and all healthcare providers. When those charged with the urgent mediation of your healing power feel overwhelmed by the numbers of the suffering, uphold them in their fatigue and banish their despair. Let them see with your eyes, so they may know all their patients as precious. Give comfort, and renew their energy and compassion.

     O Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As we go through the trials of life, help us to realize you are with us at all times and in all things; that we have no pain you do not see; and that your loving grace enfolds us for eternity. In the security of your embrace we pray. Amen.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

If I truly loved my neighbor

     Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The command-ments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:8-14

     A comedian once joked that the biblical command to love your neighbor and love your enemies were side-by-side in the Gospels because usually they were the same people. In Romans, Paul says, "Any other commandment(s), are summed up in this word, 'love your neighbor as yourself.' love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.'"

     Loving your neighbor is something we say we’ll do every time we repeat our baptismal covenant: The celebrant says, "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" and the people respond, "I will, with God's help." If you check the Internet, you'll find people have made up all sorts of lists of what they feel it means to "love your neighbor" in practical terms. Here are some of the more interesting ones I found:
  • Ask your priest if someone on your church’s sick list would like a visit.
  • Mow your neighbor’s grass.
  • Volunteer to tutor a kid at your local elementary school. (try to get to know the kid’s family.)
  • Plant a tree.
  • Serve in a homeless shelter. For extra credit, go back and eat or sleep in the shelter and allow yourself to be served.
  • The next time you're out shopping, let the person behind you in line go first.
  • Take a prayer walk. With the lovely days of late summer upon us, go for a walk around your neighborhood, and pray for your neighbors as you stroll.
  • Listen to other's stories.
  • Share a meal.
  • Go to an elderly home and get a list of folks who don´t get any visitors. Visit them each week and tell stories, read the Bible together, or play board games.
  • Confess something you have done wrong to someone and ask them to pray for you.
     But of course, other people's lists might give you ideas, but you really have to make your own. As I studied this scripture this week, I kept coming back to the same thing: If I truly loved my neighbor, as I profess, how would my life change? Some of you have mentioned you like my sermons... thank you. If you haven't gotten the chance to tell me, you’re more than welcome to leave a comment at the end of this blog entry.  I'm going to share with you one of my secrets for writing a sermon: I'm always preaching to myself. If you ever hear something in my sermons that feels like I'm urging others to do something or criticizing something, it's honestly directed at me... I just happen to be sharing it with you. So, I thought I'd just share with you the list I've come up with this week as I contemplated what it would mean in my life:

     #1 - I would have to get to know my neighbors better. The neighbors to the south of me moved out, but there are new ones moving in. I've not met them... aren't I going to have to do that so I can truly love them? The man and his family to the north of me I know. We speak every now and then. He's got a lawn care business; his lawn is gorgeous... something straight out of a Better Homes & Gardens photo spread. The man is an artist.  I am a guy... like all guys, I used to see it as a competition. I used to try to have a nicer lawn than he has, but I've given up. My only goal now is to keep my lawn nice enough so I don't embarrass him when his friends come over. But I truly don’t know many of my other neighbors.

     #2 - I wouldn't judge so quickly. I wouldn't take offence so quickly, and then would handle it as Jesus suggested in Matthew 18: I would go to the person privately… or I would let it go. I wouldn’t gossip. I wouldn't be so quick to think negatively of people. I know I'd like people to do that for me.

     #3 - I won't complain about Rin Tin Tin. That neighbor with the beautiful lawn has a new German Shepherd puppy... who whines and barks constantly. But I saw that dog when the man's son first brought him home... He slipped his leash, ran straight to me in my garage, and rolled over so I could pat his tummy. My neighbor and his son ran over to retrieve the dog, and as I patted his tummy, I asked the dog’s name. My neighbor said proudly with his heavy Hispanic accent, “Rin Tin Tin.” That man's son had dreamed for years of having a dog of his own... and now he was here, and the boy looked so happy and proud. So, because I know my neighbor and his son, I won't complain when he barks and whines all the time, he's just a puppy – a puppy as big as a small horse... and the boy… you should see him… the boy is so happy.

     #4 - I would be a better driver. I'm a pretty safe driver as it is. Maybe a little too cautious. But if I thought more of my neighbor, I’d probably be more than just a careful driver… I would be a kind driver. I probably wouldn't honk at all… yes, sometimes I do – I try not to do it when I’m in collar. Let's be honest: They call the horn a "safety feature," but it's only used for two main reasons: One, to say, "You idiot!" or two, to say, "Can't you see the light's green, you idiot?" Neither of which sounds too neighborly to me.

     #5 - I would listen more and speak less. I guess that would be because I would care more about what my neighbor has to say... I would want to listen more carefully.

     Amazing. Paul in Romans tells us to be holy... to fulfill all that God really wants out of us, we don't have to go away and live as some kind of religious hermit in a cave. We don't need to work any great miracles. We don't need to sell all our possessions and put on sackcloth. We don't even have to have a Doctorate of Divinity from a recognized seminary. No, all we have to do is work a bit more on loving our neighbor, and any other commandments just fall in line… they’re taken care of.  You've heard my list... how my life would change if I truly, truly loved my neighbor… now, it might be interesting to make up your own.