Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Storm Child

“…his own people did not accept him.”   — John 1:11

I have come to the conclusion that I like the idea of a White Christmas better than the reality of a White Christmas.  I don’t like driving in snow, and I don’t like shoveling it, and I don’t like walking across it once it’s turned into compacted ice day after day.  We’ve had a couple storms this December, and we’re slated to have another next weekend.  And when the storms come in, I don’t know about you, but all I want to do is stay home and ride out the storm with hot chocolate and a blanket.  I think that desire to go home is built into all of us. 

It’s even built into my smart phone.  All I have to say is, “OK, Google now!  Go home!”  And wherever I am it will pop up a map and navigation to lead me home.

Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, found out there was no place like home. Of course it took her 1 hour and 52 minutes, a really cranky witch, and a committee of flying monkeys to teach her, but she learned it.

Have you seen some of those Military homecoming videos on the evening news or on YouTube?  I think the ones I love best the ones where the dad or mom has been away in Afghanistan, and they surprise their kids at a school assembly.  I guess those are my favorites because I used to be a schoolteacher, and I would’ve loved to have been part of something like that.  But what if that mom or dad comes out and no one recognizes them.  What if no child bursts into tears and runs into their arms?  What if, instead of a welcome, the returning soldier was met with both indifference and in some cases outright hostility.

How unspeakably sad that would be.  How lonely.  How empty.  That emptiness is exactly what John tells us Jesus experienced.  Jesus was not recognized when he came home. 
     "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."                                                         — John 1:10, 11
 Of all people who should have been prepared to recognize the Messiah, it should’ve been his own nation.  Israel gloried in the commandments and ordinances and prophecies of their Scriptures.  Not only had their own Scriptures prepared them for Jesus’ homecoming, his cousin John the Baptist had tried to get them ready ahead of time to welcome Jesus — he told them Jesus was on his way home.  But if Jesus was expecting a warm welcome, he was sadly disappointed.

I wonder why so many folks were not able to welcome Jesus.  Maybe they felt unprepared, like they hadn't had a chance to clean up and present their best face.  A lot of people are afraid to welcome Jesus home today because they feel like they’re just not good enough.  It’s almost like they think they have to impress him or offer a spotlessly clean house and a perfectly tidy soul, before Jesus wants to be home with them.  And they forget his words, “Come unto me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)  The only requirement for being safe at home with Jesus is being worn out from trying to handle everything yourself.

Sometimes, like the Jews of his day, we’re expecting a different Jesus to come home.  The Jews of Jesus’ day expected someone a bit more like the Lone Ranger who would ride into town on a white horse and shoot up the bad guys, the Romans.  And when he did come home talking about a spiritual reawakening, urging them to peace as opposed to violence, teaching them to love their neighbor, whoever that neighbor is… it made them mad.

Sometimes we want a Jesus to show up who isn’t quite so radical in his views about caring for the poor.  And we’d rather he not harp on how we shouldn’t be so materialistic especially so close to Christmas.  And couldn’t he be a little more supportive when instead of pursuing peace, we decide our first resort is to go for our guns?  We want a Jesus who agrees with our politics, our priorities, and our spending habits.  And when the real Jesus knocks on the door and challenges us to rethink some of these things, we don’t recognize him.  Sometimes we get mad, and we say, “I think you got the wrong house.”

Some folks are just too caught up in the busyness of their day-to-day lives to recognize just how much they need the new life that Jesus came to offer.  Sometimes, after a hectic day, they pause late at night when the kids are in bed, and the house is finally quiet.  And for just a few moments, they recognize there has to be more to life than just going to work, coming home exhausted, catching a few hours’ sleep, and then doing it all over again.  But then they get caught right back up in the rat race, and never find time to welcome Jesus home. 

But this isn’t the Gospel — The Good News. The Good News is found in verse 12:  “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  The Good News is Jesus knew his children were longing for home, and he was determined that through the storms of this life they would have a home with him.

Garrison Keillor well-known for his stories from Lake Wobegon tells a story about what he called his "storm-home":

The principal of his school, Mr. Detman, fearful of a winter blizzard during the school day, assigned each student from the outlying county a "storm-home" in town, near the school. If a blizzard struck during school hours, each child was to go to their storm-home. Here is how Keillor told the story through his boyhood eyes: 
     Mine was the Kloeckles’, an old couple who lived in a little green cottage by the lake . . . . It looked like the home of the kindly old couple that the children lost in the forest suddenly come upon in a clearing and know they are lucky to be in a story with a happy ending . . .
     I imagined the Kloeckles had personally chosen me as their storm child because they liked me. "Him" they had told Mr. Detman. "In the event of a blizzard, we want that boy! The skinny one with the thick glasses."
     No blizzard came during the school hours that year. All the snow storms were convenient evening or weekend ones, and I never got to stay with the Kloeckles, but they were often in my thoughts and they grew large in my imagination.
     My Storm Home.
     Blizzards aren’t the only storms and not the worst by any means. I could imagine worse things. If the worst should come, I could go to the Kloeckles and knock on their door. "Hello," I’d say. "I’m your storm child."
     "Oh, I know," she’d say. "I was wondering when you’d come. Oh, it’s good to see you. How would you like a hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie?"
     We’d sit at the table. "Looks like this storm is going to last awhile." (She’d say.)
     "Terrible storm. They say it’s going to get worse before it stops. I just pray for anyone who’s out in this."
     "But we’re so glad to have you. I can’t tell you. Carl! Come down and see who’s here."
     "Is it the storm child?"
     "Yes. Himself, in the flesh!"
Although he was not welcome home, Jesus knew how important home was.  So he became our storm-home and our strength.  And you… you are God’s storm-child.  Like that kindly couple who picked Garrison Keillor out to be their storm-child, our God, has chosen you. You are the beloved.  And when the storms of this life get to be too much, you have a place where you are always welcome... a home near the warm heart of God.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Joseph’s Lullaby

“ angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…’”            — Matthew 1
 A little over a week ago, the kids got their parts for the Christmas Pageant.  One little girl, about seven years old, came back to her mother, and her mother asked what part she got.  The little girl very seriously replied, “Head Angel,” and then victoriously pumped both her hands up in the air and said, “Whut! Whut!” 

Ninja Shepherds
Of course, the most coveted role is that of Mary, but there are a number of other choice roles.  Being a shepherd is cool among the boys.  You get to dress kind of raggedy, and you get to walk with those shepherds crooks which both make you feel a little bit like a bishop, and yet should the need arise… you could be a ninja.  That is, of course, one of the greatest challenges of Christmas pageants — keeping the shepherds from going ninja.  It’s great if you get to be one of the three Kings.  You get to dress up like royalty and carry rich gifts for the baby Jesus.

Even some of the minor roles are pretty exciting: Getting to go about on all fours and baa like sheep, getting to be Mary’s faithful donkey, or even one of the cows.  In more extravagant productions, a role as one of the three camels of the Magi might be available — now that’s a role that carries automatic prestige.

Poor Joseph!
But there’s one role in the Christmas pageant no one seems to be vying for… the part of Joseph.  Is there any worse role in a Christmas pageant than that of Joseph?  Joseph usually only gets to stand there.  Sometimes he’s the unlucky guy who gets to knock on the door of the inn only to find out there’s no room. 

Of the four Gospel writers, only Luke and Matthew have birth narratives.  Whereas Luke's story (Luke 1:5-2:20) focuses on Mary, Joseph is the main character in Matthew's account.  So, once every three years in our lectionary we take out Joseph, dust him off, and he gets to take center stage.

And after reading this account, we have to say Jesus' human dad was incredible!  Can you imagine Joseph’s emotions just in one night we read about in the gospel today?  He's gone from excitement about his pending marriage, to what had to be a feeling of betrayal by his virgin bride and her father, to a hard decision to end the farce engagement quietly.

It sounds like Joseph loved Mary.  Bare justice according to the Old Law would have been to shame her publicly.  But his regard for the law was balanced by a sense of compassion that exemplified the higher values of the Kingdom that would one day be proclaimed by his son.  Grace was at work in Joseph’s situation. In the midst of his grief, his inner turmoil and probably his sleepless night, he must have finally dozed off, and God sent an angel.

Now in our society, angels are seeing as kind of fluffy things… kind little cherubs you glue to your dashboard or put on Christmas trees.  But Scripture gives us another picture — especially of announcing angels.  In an article entitled, “The Truth About Angels in the Bible” Candida Moss writes: 
     " ... The Angel Gabriel, best supporting actor of modern nativity plays, is less serene when he announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah. 
     When Zechariah protests that he’s getting on a bit, Gabriel replies ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words … you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’ 
If you meet an angel,
you should probably run.
     That’s how he delivers the good news. As the poet Rilke wrote, ‘Every angel is terror.’... If you’re looking for spiritual assistance then you should call a saint. If you meet an angel you should probably run.”    — The Daily Beast (8/15/13)
 But as Joseph wrestled in his sleep, not knowing whether to follow his heart and take Mary to be his wife, or to give in to his crushed honor, and divorce her, an angel came — maybe it was Gabriel again who had also appeared first to Mary and Zechariah — and gave him the strength to follow his heart.  And with Joseph's acceptance of Mary as his wife, he becomes Jesus’ adopted father, and makes him legally of the tribe of David.  Though most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospels, he carried out an astonishingly important task: He accepted and raised the son of God. 

Joseph reminds us of how important dads are, but specifically dads who are vulnerable.  Men are often taught to be tough and invincible, but look at Joseph. Look at how vulnerable he made himself.  He opened himself up to the ridicule of his family and society.  He took the word of an angel who came to him in a dream.  How incredibly vulnerable Joseph was!  But also, how incredibly courageous!  You know, that’s what it takes to be courageous — the ability to be vulnerable.

Think about any act of courage in your life or in the lives of others, and you will see that each of these acts required a person to be incredibly vulnerable.  And we hate to be vulnerable.  We want to appear competent and able to handle anything.  Isn’t it funny that when we meet someone new, the first thing we are looking for in another is that human vulnerability?  It tells me that you will understand me.  But at the same time vulnerability is the very last thing we want others to see in us.

When you have a child, I think it is the most vulnerable can ever be.  That little person has complete access to your heart.  More of us dads need to be like Joseph… vulnerable… courageous.

We don’t hear much about Joseph after the nativity stories, but there’s a lesson in that too.  By raising Jesus, Joseph did a lot of meaningful things without any fanfare.  Joseph surely deserves a lot of our respect, for without his gifts of hospitality, acceptance, and love, the story of Christmas would have no beginning.  And with these gifts, Joseph is a model for all who are called by God to serve in supportive roles.

At the beginning of this gospel Joseph was trapped as many of us sometimes are between what appeared to be two equally bad choices: making a big scene about Mary and publicly shaming her or ending the marriage contract privately.  But because Joseph was the man he was — vulnerable, courageous, open to God— he was able to find the third way.  What surprises me about Joseph is that he shifts from "binary thinking" to considering a third option: to take Mary as his wife.

I wonder how often we are caught in a two-sided ethical dilemma when God actually has a third way in mind that has not occurred to us.  So many people nowadays have the tendency to think in terms of either–or.  Sadly, it often takes the form of being the kind of person who says, “It’s my way or the highway.”  Even if we are not that arrogant, we sometimes get stuck in the same kind of thinking in our own lives: “I’ll either win or lose… I’ll get this great job I want, or I’ll give up… I’ll lose fifty pounds this year, or just forget about it.”  Joseph allowed himself to be vulnerable enough to relinquish his own plan for his life so he could respond to the spiritual reality that was unfolding in the midst of this human drama.  Perhaps if we could unclench our fists around our plans… God could find a third way for us.  It’s scary being vulnerable like Joseph, but it’s also the basis all great acts of courage. 

We are so grateful that, just like Mary, Joseph said, “Yes,” to the angel.  There have been songs written about Mary singing a lullaby to Jesus, like all mothers do to their sleeping babies.  But a more recent poet, Ron Klug imagined another lullaby one that Joseph sang long after Mary and the child fell asleep that silent Christmas night...

Sleep now, little one.
I will watch while you and your mother sleep.
I wish I could do more.
This straw is not good enough for you.
Back in Nazareth I'll make a proper bed for you
of seasoned wood, smooth, strong, well-pegged,
A bed fit for a carpenter's son.

Just wait till we get back to Nazareth.
I'll teach you everything I know.
You'll learn to choose the cedarwood, eucalyptus and fir.
You'll learn to use the drawshave, ax and saw.
Your arms will grow strong, your hands rough - like these.
You will bear the pungent smell of new wood
and wear shavings and sawdust in your hair.

You'll be a man whose life centers
on hammer and nails and wood.
But for now,
sleep, little Jesus, sleep. 
— Ron Klug,"Joseph's Lullaby," Decision, December 1973. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela and The Rifleman

     When I was asked to speak at an interfaith service for Nelson Mandela last week, my first thought was, “What in the world could a white guy raised in a lower middle class family in Sparks, Nevada possibly have to say about this great man that could not be said better by others?

     But then I remembered Chuck Connors in the TV show The Rifleman…

     When I was a kid, he was my hero.  And I… I was going to grow up to be a cowboy.  Funny how life doesn’t always turn out like we expect.  But because I looked up to Chuck Connors when I was a kid — because he was my hero — I did everything I could to be like him.  I had a cap gun I kept in a side holster, and I learned to ride horses… got pretty good at it too!

     We all grow up, and we get new heroes.  For many of us, Nelson Mandela was one.  If someone is your hero… if you look up to him… you try to be like him.  But being like Nelson Mandela isn’t as easy as buying a cap gun and learning to ride a horse.  So many other folks have talked about different aspects of his life, so I’ll just focus on one… what he thought about poverty.

     Mandela said, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.  While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

     There have been a lot of people eulogizing Nelson Mandela.  But if he’s really your hero — in this one area — it’s going to change the way you feel about the poor in your heart.
     It’s going to change the way you speak about and to the poor.
     It’s going to change the way you see your own finances as not all belonging to you.
     It’s going to change the programs you support in this country and the world.
     And… it may change the people you vote for.

     With Nelson Mandela gone, a great light has been extinguished in our world.  But we can all be like him in our own small way.  It’s not as easy as becoming a cowboy, but it will change the world.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


     Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’  And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.   And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’     — Luke 18

     I have a confession to make.   I am a techno-geek.  I love computers and the latest cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, downloading the latest useless app on my phone so I can waste time.  I’m the priest you’ll see in our staff meetings taking notes on his cell phone with a stylus, and then uploading them to Evernote so they are simultaneously on my home and church computers, and of course automatically backed up to the cloud.

     My calendar of choice is Google calendar.   I can enter a new appointment on my phone and simultaneously it’s on both my computers.  Our new associate priest and I are both kind of techie.   When we’re asked whether we need a printout of the staff calendar, we look confused and say things like, “They still make calendars on paper?” 

     But as much as I love technology, I have to admit sometimes it goes too far.  I had an appointment Tuesday I almost missed because I had entered it for the same date in 2014.  It’s so easy with my chunky little fingers to push the wrong year on my cell phone.  The good news is if you’re looking to meet with me on October 15, 2014, my calendar is wide-open.

     Another time I realized technology had gone a bit far was a couple weeks ago in the church office.   I heard a strange beep.  I looked at my computer to see if I had a new E-Mail.  I checked my calendar to see if an alarm had gone off.  Then, I checked my cell phone for notifications… nothing.   I glanced over at the other associate priest’s desk to see if it was her cell phone… nope.   Finally, I realized that beep signaled my Weight Watchers frozen lunch was ready in the microwave.

     I like Facebook and Twitter.  but I tend to only post silly things or copies of my sermons... Although I will have to tell you that I get a lot more “Likes” when I post pictures of my cats than when I post my sermons.  Facebook can be a useful communication tool I guess, but I sometimes wonder about posts some people broadcast to their friends and often the world.  Here are some odd examples:
     Thought I lost my camera last week when we were in Bermuda, then found it in a Pop Tart box.
     It is so hard to drive while looking into the setting sun.  It is even harder to Tweet while doing it; I have almost been hit 3 times.  The drivers in California are terrible.
     Just signed up to learn to be a paralegal because I love ghosts!
     While all these gadgets are terrific for keeping us in touch with our work and our families and friends, they also pare away the few remaining moments of solitary time we have left for reflection, silence, and inner quiet.  Sometimes you have to disconnect to connect.

     Today's parable of the persistent widow was told on Jesus' final trip to Jerusalem.  It says it was a parable about their need to pray and not lose heart — not God's need to hear it, but our need to have that disconnected time with the world so we can connect with God.  The persistent widow kept crying out for justice,  but the judge was unjust.  He couldn't care less what others or even God thought of him.  It says he finally decided to give her justice because the widow was wearing him out (literally in Greek, “She’s giving me a black eye!”).

     Jesus had a sense of humor.  you can see it coming through this parable.  You can almost hear his audience chuckling.  She does not seek retribution against her adversary, but only what is rightfully hers.  If such an unjust judge would grant justice, how much more God?

     So, if prayer is for us, what does it do?  Specifically what does persistent prayer do?  It’s like having a quiet, one-on-one conversation with a close friend who wants to tell you something that requires your full attention.  If you’re always online, you might miss out on this one way of relating to God.  And make no mistake, you may not be a techno-geek like me, but lots of people fill their lives with activities like soccer games, and appointments, and social events, and football games, and TV until all that chatter fills up their souls, and there is no room left for God.  Without some inner silence, it becomes harder to listen to God’s voice within. It is more difficult to hear the “small, still” sound, as the First Book of Kings described God’s voice.  “Deep calls to deep,” says Psalm 42.  But what if you can’t hear the deep? Solitude and silence also enable us to connect on a deeper level with others, for we are put in touch with the deepest part of ourselves.

     We are to pray always, but we are to pray with faith. Prayer allows the ongoing presence of God to have power over our lives and brings us into deeper relationship with God.  To persist in prayer is also to persist in believing. 

     It is said that the two most common prayers people say are, “Help me!  Help me!  Help me!”  — and — “Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!”  That’s a good start.   But I think sometimes people don’t pray more often because they worry they don’t have the right words. 

     My grandmother’s favorite Scripture was 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”  Whatever you are concerned about.   Whatever’s keeping you up nights.   Whatever broken pieces you know are clanking around inside you.   God wants to hear about them.   You don’t have to have the right words.

     And it’s okay to pray when you’re angry with God.   Job was a righteous man who honored His Creator by honestly calling God out on the tragedy he suffered.  Remember Jesus’ prayer of desperation on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  It’s okay.   God’s big enough to take all the anger we can spew out... and still love us unconditionally.

     It’s wonderful to say short prayers of gratitude before you go to sleep at night, prayer and thanksgiving for all the blessings that have filled your day.

Centering Prayer
     And you can pray without words.   Just yesterday we had a workshop here at Trinity about centering prayer.  That’s the kind of prayer where you sit silently in the presence of God.   Open yourself up to the divine.  If it helps you, light a candle.   Choose a word that has special meaning for you that day, and repeat it gently in your mind over and over as you sink into God’s spirit.  Perhaps you’ll use the word “forgiveness” because you’re trying hard to forgive someone who is hurt you.  Perhaps you’ll use the word “peace” because it desperately need it in your life.

Pray while you're walking.
     You can pray by walking outside in our wonderful crisp Nevada autumn weather.   All you have to do is be intentional.  Before you go out, pray that God will open your eyes to the wonders of creation and God’s love.  Sit for a few minutes quietly after you return from your walk.   Close your eyes.   Invite the Spirit to remind you of whatever lessons you learned while walking.

     I guess what I’m saying is there is no wrong way to pray — Whatever you say or don’t say; Whether you’re feeling happy or in despair; Whether you can put words around what you need in your life or not. 

     The God who calls each of the stars in the night sky by name — The God who knows your name and loves you — will sort it out.

     The final statement in this parable seems so sad to me.  "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  This seems so sad and wistful, especially in light that this is Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem.  Just as Jesus was human and had a sense of humor, it must have been hard for him being human not to wonder sometimes:  Wonder if there would be faith like the widow's when he returned;  Wonder if there would be that persistence of faith, persistence in prayer, persistence in believing.

     It's good to spend quality time with an old friend.  This week, just for a little bit, make sure you shut down the computer, turn off the phones, and turn off the TV – you don't need to see one more Depends or Purple Pill commercial anyway, do you?  Un-Facebook yourself.   Un-Twitter yourself.   Un-Computer yourself.   Un-TV yourself, and waste some time with the God who loves you.

     I have always been convinced that the difference between Christianity that is just on the surface and Christianity that sinks deep into your bones, is based, not on how much we learn, or whether we have correct beliefs, but rather, on how often and deeply we pray.

     I won’t kid you though, prayer can also be dangerous, because it might change you.  The modern Episcopal writer Phyllis Tickle wrote:

     "Prayer is a non-locative, non-geographic space that one enters at one's own peril, for it houses God during those few moments of one's presence there, and what is there will most surely change everything that comes into it.  
     "Prayer, its opal walls polished to transparency by the centuries of hands that have touched them, is the Tabernacle realized and the wayside chapel utilized. Ever traveling as we travel, moving as we move, prayer grips like home, until the heart belongs nowhere else and the body can scarcely function apart from them both.  
     "Prayer is dangerous and the entrance way to wholeness."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Count the Stars

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  — Luke 12

     Today's Gospel seems like one short saying right after another… kind of like Jesus is using Twitter.  You know, Twitter... the micro-blogging megatrend that gives users only 140 characters to post a message to anyone following their message feed.
Calvin Coolidge

     The patron saint of Tweeters may be U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, known for the brevity of his answers and responses.  One day, after attending church, Coolidge found himself cornered by a newspaper reporter.

      “What was the sermon about?” the reporter wanted to know.
      “Sin,” replied the president.
      “And what did the preacher have to say about sin?” the reporter pressed.
      “He was against it,” said the President.

     There was a woman invited to a White House dinner who told Calvin Coolidge, “Oh, Mr. President!  I’ve bet all my friends I can get you to say more than three words!”
     He replied simply, "You lose."

     In a few short Twitter bursts, Jesus in today’s Gospel talks about our proper relationship to material things.  A lot of the things that so-called Christians talk about in today’s society Jesus spoke about very little or not at all, but he had a lot to say about money — More than a third of his parables deal with the dilemma of our relationship to material things. 

     So, where is your heart this morning?  Verse 34 says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus invites us to adopt the perspective of eternity.  Practically, that means having a loose hold on our stuff — not letting it have a firm hold on us.

     Jesus talks specifically about giving alms — financial care given directly to the poor and needy.  In contemporary application, alms can show up in varied ways: 
  • Maybe, we won’t be having empty bedrooms in the house. Instead, we’ll be sharing temporary housing with friends and family in need.
  • Perhaps, it will be keeping a to-be-determined charity line in your budget each month and looking for ways to give out the money.
  • Maybe it will be bringing in food for our bins for the needy here at Trinity.
  • You could have quarterly family conversations about what you’re making and deciding together where you’re giving.  
  • You might hold a sale on Craigslist to decrease your possessions in support of someone else’s overdue bills. 
      These are all just outward expressions of an inward reality: Christ-followers see money and possessions as a temporary means to an eternal end.

     Jesus tells us not to be afraid, but he also tells us today to be ready.   He tells us to have our lamps lit so were watching for his return.  The lamps (Greek: luchnos) referred to are small clay lamps. To keep them burning required both effort and resources. The lamps had to be refilled periodically with olive oil to keep them burning; the wicks had to be trimmed occasionally; and the lamps were checked periodically in case the wind blew one out.  It’s not easy to keep your lamps burning… to not being afraid, adopting that perspective of eternity, having a loose hold on material possessions. It’s not easy; it’s work.

     Jesus tells us to be ready, but, ready for what?  The answer is right there in the Gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Two weeks ago in the Gospel reading, Jesus taught his disciples to pray the Kingdom into existence in their lives.  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus is teaching us here to prepare our bodies, our hearts and our lives for the Kingdom of God.  Sometimes that takes a little spiritual exercise.  What would your spiritual exercise regimen look like?  It’s different for each of us.  Some folks need to spend more time in prayer; some folks need to spend less time in prayer and get out there and help people.  Some folks need to get a little more time alone so they can, as one saint put it, waste time with God; other folks need to spend more time with other people hearing their stories instead of worrying so much about their own.  Finding what it takes to be ready for the Kingdom can be different for each one of us.

     The one thing that is the same for each of us is the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t our reward at death, it is the reign of God breaking out in our midst. Right now.  This very moment.  And what would this reign of God look like?  Jesus says it is a reign of daily bread for everyone, it is a Kingdom of forgiveness, and it is a empire of courage in the face of evil.

     So many people have exchanged the certainty of material things for the certainty of what passes as faith, but isn't.  So many people are worried because they have doubts about themselves and doubts about their faith.  Let me tell you, I don’t worry about folks who have doubts about their faith; I worry about folks are absolutely certain about everything.  You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.  Things that are tangible and directly in front of us are much easier to have faith in.  That includes rules and a really long to-do list type of religion, where you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being good enough or checking off enough things on your to-do list... or worse, beating others up. 

     Jesus, however, invites us into the kind of faith Abraham had. It was not based on a to-do list, but rather on believing in the face of doubt.  God does not coerce Abram or offer any new promises or proofs.  Yet in the face of seeming impossibility, Abram puts his whole trust in the Lord and simply believes.  This single act provides a radical understanding of faith as hope born out of the barrenness of the past.

     The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 11, the number one qualification of the folks who had faith all through the thousands and thousands of years of our history were those who felt like they were kind of strangers here on earth. They didn’t quite fit in. They had doubts.  So, do you have doubts?  Do you sometimes feel like a stranger in this world?  Congratulations!  I will tell you, you are the kind of person God seems to be especially fond of.

     Rather than getting too comfortable with this earth and its material possessions it says that these kind of people, “Looked forward to the city that has foundation, whose architect and builder is God.”

     Instead of worrying so much about our own future, our own material possessions, our own doubts, we just keep moving into God’s future.  And day by day, as we live with our doubts, and serve others, and trust by faith, and keep ourselves ready — with our eyes open to see the kingdom of God breaking out all around us — what we frequently discover in “serving” other people, is that God comes to us through the other and serves us.  Our Gospel reading in Luke says that, “he will come and serve them.”  Perhaps at the end of this liturgy instead of the traditional “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”.  Maybe we should be saying, “Go in peace. The Lord serves you.”

     Imagine for a moment what life would be like if we were not afraid; if we were not so bound by material things; if we truly believed the Lord serves us.  We would be a different kind of people.

      There’s a story about the founding of IBM.  In the early days of this company, a decision was made to improve production. Each department head was ordered to turn in three failed projects a year!  Now think what this did for those working in the company. It took away any fear of failure. They were required to fail. How many projects would they need to work on for this quota to be met?  No idea could possibly be ruled out; no one would be ridiculed, everyone would be tapped for talent and ideas.  Production of new technology exploded and turned them into a world-wide company — Big Blue! 

     It makes us realize how much fear we sometimes have in the church.  We’re sometimes far too fearful of failing at things we try.  We’re sometimes too fearful of change… no, not here at Trinity, of course… I've just heard this happens at other congregations.  What if we decided to copy this IBM model, this Gospel model of not being afraid?  What might we achieve to help the kingdom break out in Reno if we weren’t afraid.  And then, if we look at ourselves as a church and none of our projects fail — if everything we do succeeds — maybe all it means is we are being too cautious and we need to try more challenging things. 

     Yes, the world would be different — Reno would be different — if we could just unclench our fists a tiny bit and let go of our fears, if we didn’t have such tight grip on our material things, and if we truly believed that we are the beloved, and God wants to come to us and serves us every bit as much as we want to serve God.

     Abraham stood at night under the stars, much as we do.  And of all the messages he expected to hear from God at ninety-something years of age, I doubt it was, “Congratulations, Abraham, you’re going to have a baby!”  And in the face of all his uncertainties and doubts,  Abraham smiled, and he believed, and then maybe he and God chuckled about it a little bit together.

     If, like Abraham, I can let go just a little bit of all my certainties about what is and is not possible.  If I can let go just a little bit of all the material possessions and worries that weigh me down.  Then maybe I can walk a little more lightly on this earth.  I can breathe little more deeply and easily and take time to look up at the stars.

     And if you do this too, and we both open our hearts to others, the kingdom will truly breakout among us.  And we won’t even be able to count all the people we affect, or the good that is done, or the change in this tired old world. There will be no way to add it up. It’d be impossible… kind of like trying to count the stars.


Parishioners applaud Reno Priest breaking into cars in church parking lot!

     Ten minutes before the Saturday night liturgy, a parishioner rushed in to tell me one of our elderly members had locked her keys in her car and was looking for someone with a coat hanger who might help her get it open. In full alb and stole, I went out, got a hanger from the parish hall, and went to work. Luckily, she had an older Mercedes with those door locks that still have a knob. I was able to fish the coat hanger in through the window, looping it around the lock and popped it. An audience of parishioners who had gathered to watch applauded.  I got her car open in five minutes, and we had five minutes to spare before the service began. 
     The conclusion my flock should have drawn is that, when I was sixteen, my first car was an old Ford Falcon, and I learned to do this because I locked myself out of it numerous times.  I'm not, however, sure that's where they went.  All I know is my parishioners are kind of looking at me a little differently now.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Birthday Prayer

     Dear God, you who are my father and my mother and my lover,

     On this, the day of my birth, I see you in the green summer grass, and the flitting birds, and the turquoise blue sky. Your presence surrounds me.

     Your plan for the world and my small part in it continue to unfold. May I play my role well, and fulfill the dream you had for me so many years ago.

     Continue to gentle my heart. Don't not let me become hard or indifferent or calloused because of the evil we commit against each other that I see in the daily news, or my own fears, or simply the weight of the world pressing down on me.

     Help me to forgive. You know I'm pretty good at forgiving others, but help me with the harder tasks of forgiveness: Help me to forgive myself for so often not being man I think I should be; help me to forgive life that it didn't quite turn out like I thought it would so many years ago.

     When I get lonely, help me to see how much love I have in my life - more love than many people see in an entire lifetime. Make my heart more grateful for the friends and loved ones who surround me. Give me a constant awareness of you walking alongside me, so I can truly never be lonely.  And when, despite all this love, I get down, just sit with me and wait.

     Cure my blindness. Open my eyes to see the good in the world. Open my eyes to see you in everyone I meet. Open my eyes to see the great battles everyone else is fighting inside just like me, and then give me compassion for them.

     This new year, make me smaller. Help me to become less important, less self-centered, less focused on myself.  Let me find myself through service to others and to you.  Make me a blessing to everyone who meets me.

     As I go about the tasks I have set to improve myself this year, help me to carry my past failures lightly, and don't let it be some miserable onerous chore I have to slog through. Instead, let it simply be a journey I take with you to see the person I can become.

     The summer breeze is your caress, your glory is reflected in the drops of water on the grass of my little lawn, and the birds sing of the mystery of your love. Tonight, I will sit under crystal stars that wheel silently overhead and glitter as though they're quietly amused at my silliness and fears.  It is enough, my love, and I am grateful.


Friday, July 26, 2013

A rockin' piece called "Praise His Holy Name"

     From last night's concert at Church for the conclusion of Artown in Reno!  A rockin' piece called Praise His Holy Name.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Internal Bleeding

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’  — Luke 10
     I was on my way to Hawthorne, a small town in the middle of the desert in Nevada, when my car started that funny wobbling motion which got worse and worse — I had a flat.  I pulled over and got out of the car.  Like everyone who’s ever had a flat, even though I knew what it was and what I had to do, we all have to stand there a moment looking at it thinking, “What now?”  While I was doing this, a Highway Patrol car pulled up behind me with lights flashing.  My only thought was, “Great… and a ticket.”  But that isn’t what happened.  First off, the officer did the most disturbing thing he could possibly do… he smiled at me.  He then proceeded to chat me up, and he actually changed my tire for me.  I was stunned.  It was a classic example of a Good Samaritan.  Changing my tire really wasn't his job; he could've driven on by.

     If only life gave such simple black and white choices like in the parable of the Good Samaritan: Help the injured, bleeding guy by the side of the road, or walk on by.  The story of the Good Samaritan is so well known, I wonder if it sometimes loses its impact.  We all know it in one form or another.  Robbers beat a guy on the road going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, leaving him half dead.  A priest sees him, but passes by; a Levite does the same.  But the Samaritan, the one Jesus’ audience least expected to do the right thing, was moved with pity.  He bandaged his wounds, and poured oil and wine on them.  Olive oil was often used to heal wounds and to anoint the sick, while the wine acted as an antiseptic.  He put the man on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

     If we walk away from this with only the lesson we should help people if they're beaten up on the side of the road, we missed the last part of what Jesus said.  He didn't say, "Go and do the exact same as the Samaritan did."  He said instead, "Go and do likewise…" likewise.  So how do we do that?  I think it starts with our eyes...  with seeing.  There are so many people lying by the side of the road, unconscious, bleeding, but we don't see them.

     John Watson in 1903 wrote:
“This person beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising.  And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with them, to bid them be of good cheer, to let them understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate them, nor press hardly upon them...”
     It was later simplified to:  "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." 

     Jesus had the ability to look beyond the surface and see the hard battles people were fighting inside.  We know Jesus was a healer, but we don't always notice that he also addressed the underlying need of people he healed… the internal bleeding. 

     In Luke 5, there was a paralyzed man who couldn’t get into the house where Jesus was because of the crowd, and so his friends got up on to the roof, removed the tiles, and let him down through the hole.  Jesus didn’t heal him immediately; instead he knew the first thing the man needed to hear was "Friend, your sins are forgiven you."  Sounds to me like this man had internalized the message that somehow his paralysis was his own fault — that rotten theology still perpetuated today by some that says bad things only happen to bad people.  That it somehow was God’s punishment for his sins.  Jesus knew he needed to hear words of forgiveness and absolution.

     In Luke 8 before the calming of the storm, Jesus first asked his disciples, "Where is your faith?"  While the storm was still raging, and the waves were crashing up over the edge the boat threatening to sink it, it was then the disciples needed to examine their faith. And then Jesus spoke the words that calmed the storm.

     Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry in John 8, there was the woman who had supposedly been caught in adultery.  She needed more than to be protected from a sentence of death.  She needed to be able to return to her community and live.  By convicting the hearts of those who accused her, he changed her life.  He gave her and many other women safety. 

     People are half dead from fear and loneliness or the weight of this world. It's hard to see the bruises and the bleeding and brokenness we all carry around inside.  About the only way that really seems to work is if we really listen.  A wise friend of mine once said, "If you listen to someone long enough, they'll tell you everything you need to know."

     So how do we truly listen to another person?  How do we get a glimpse of that inner battle?  How do we do like Jesus did and see beneath the surface to the real need, and then, how can we help?
Dr. Ralph Nichols, who founded the International Listening Association once said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

     How many people suffer because they feel invisible, that no one is really listening to them?  No one can even see them lying by the side of the road bleeding. 

     One person who had been through a crisis in his life put it this way,
“When someone listens to you well, it makes you feel accepted, understood, important, valued and validated. It gives you a voice to help you find yourself again. It reminds you that you are not invisible or alone.  We also don’t get to see a lot of examples of real listening because it is so rare.   Although we hear with our ears, many of us don’t necessarily listen to what is being said.  We don’t get the chance to listen when we are too quickly reacting, judging, providing solutions, and disagreeing, rather than being a good sounding board.  But we can create by our listening a pure, non-judgmental, patient, and empathetic space where the other person gets to express and feel understood and validated. Most times folks don’t need or even want solutions, advice, or answers...  They just want to be listened to.  Powerful listening can provide immeasurable healing.  For many people it will be the first time in their lives they actually feel like they have been heard, really understood — like what they experienced and have to say makes sense.  It makes people feel important and visible again.  Being understood immediately shifts perspective: From feeling invisible to feeling visible, from feeling down to feeling uplifted, from feeling contracted to feeling expanded, from feeling hopeless to hopeful.”
     Sometimes we think we’re helping, but we’re not.  When I was a new teacher, there was this boy who had terrible handwriting.  I mean, it looked like he had taken the pencil and put it between his toes to write.  His desk was filled with stubs of pencils no more than an inch to an inch and a half long.  As a newly trained teacher, I knew what to do.  I got him a fresh pencil, and talked to him about proper posture, holding the pencil correctly, and even bringing up the tails of the last letter in cursive to provide automatic spacing for the next word.  His handwriting improved for a little bit, but soon was back to the illegible scrawl he had used before.  Thank goodness for parents.  We had a regularly scheduled parent-teacher conference, and they told me the problem was there was a boy sitting by the pencil sharpener who always poked and teased their son, so he just wouldn’t go over there to sharpen his pencil.  I moved the other boy (I think I also threatened his life), and the problem was solved.  You see, I thought I was helping at first, but I really wasn’t.  There’s a big difference between thinking we are helping someone and really serving them.

     Rachel Naomi Remen said,
“Many times when we help we do not really serve. . . . Serving is also different from fixing. One of the pioneers of the Human Potential Movement, Abraham Maslow, said, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.' Seeing yourself as a fixer may cause you to see brokenness everywhere, to sit in judgment of life itself. When we fix others, we may not see their hidden wholeness or trust the integrity of the life in them. Fixers trust their own expertise. When we serve, we see the unborn wholeness in others; we collaborate with it and strengthen it. Others may then be able to see their wholeness for themselves for the first time.”
     We all feel like we want to do something to help, but often the greatest way we can help is to simply be present and to listen. 

     There was a little girl who arrived home late from school.  Her parents were worried, and asked why she was so late.  She replied that her friend had lost her doll.  Her parents asked, “Oh, did you stay after to help her look for it?”  “No,” the little girl replied, “I stayed to help her cry.”

     Knowing I tended to be the kind of person who wanted to fix things, a very wise hospital chaplain once advised me: “Don't just do something, stand there.”

     When I think about the people who really helped me in my life, it wasn't because they fixed my problems for me, but because they listened to me.

     When I was eighteen and had just been kicked out of my home because I was questioning the religious tradition in which I was raised, I poured my heart out to the mom of one of my friends, Mrs. Olson.  She listened to me… that’s it.  At the end she helped me by not by fixing anything but simply by acknowledging the reality I faced: She said, "It’s hard to be big people."

     About eleven years ago, our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, then Bishop of Nevada, listened to me explain, that despite the calling I felt to the priesthood, there were so many reasons why the Episcopal Church probably wouldn’t want me as a priest.  She listened to me until I finally ran down, and then calmly said, “I can't imagine why any of those things would matter… why don’t you just tell me about your journey.”

     When my dad was dying, there was no Christian priest on duty, instead it was a Buddhist Monk who helped me not with words but by sitting with me and with my family… by listening. I knew at the time he had given us a great gift, but it wasn’t until later I learned how great a gift: He had patiently sat there and listened to what we were going through, while he was still privately grieving over his own father who he had lost two weeks earlier. He never said a word about it.

     It is sometimes scary and uncomfortable to remain standing in place in the presence of suffering, but if we going to see the real bleeding inside, it is what we are called to do for one another.  Sometimes we’re given the opportunity to stop the bleeding and apply something soothing and disinfecting.  Sometimes people need more than that, and we have to carry them… put them on our own donkey.  Sometimes they even need extended care… not just a moment’s intervention, but the gift of our time.

     And people need hope.  When Jesus sent out the seventy in last week’s Gospel the main message was to tell folks “The Kingdom of God has come near you.”  People need to hear the message that the Kingdom of God has come very near to them.  People need to hear this message, a message of hope that they are not so far off the beaten track they cannot find their way back.  People need to hear the message that healing is not out of their reach.  In Deuteronomy, Moses said, “This commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away... not heaven or beyond the sea... but very near you... in your mouth and heart.”

     This entire story of the Good Samaritan was in answer to the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus's answer wasn't that you're not religious enough — there is nothing about spirituality or prayer or religion — It's about feeling pity.  It's about being willing to be expended for others.

     The surprising thing is when you help that person by the side of the road, when you truly understand what they're going through, when you help staunch their own internal bleeding, you may discover that somehow that battle you fight within yourself has quieted down a bit.  The ache in your heart is somewhat lessened because you yourself are no longer invisible.  You have connected with another person.  And although their battle may not be your own, it lifts your own burden to recognize you're not alone fighting that great internal battle.  You realize they’re just like you… human… and that lifts a great burden of isolation.  And you feel more alive.

     And maybe… just maybe… you’ll realize eternal life isn't just something that begins after you die, it begins with our neighbors… it begins now.  Eternal life begins today.