Sunday, October 31, 2010

2010 Proper 26C: Aesthetic Essential

The propers:

Isaiah 1:10-18
2nd Thessalonians 1:1-4; 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

The Sermon:

The Episcopal church is known for the beauty of its liturgy…some of the most wonderful occasions of worship I have experienced have been rife with pomp and circumstance. Incense wafting through literal catacombs; fire in the darkness; the choir’s anthem ascending and filling the space; communion served while gazing in reverence at glorious carvings of saints. And, I’m going to generalize wildly here…we tend to be people who love language, who love poetry and the art of worship. Our liturgy is a means of “seeing” God in beauty—and offering up the best of what we have as human beings to God. The compilation of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to offer a form for worship that would glorify God in truth, in beauty and most importantly in a gathered community of individuals gathered for a shared purpose—the journey towards God.

Indeed, people have left churches when liturgical changes have occurred…the “new” prayer book (and since when is something first published in 1979 “new”?); the “new” hymnal; offering communion every Sunday as opposed to morning prayer; and sometimes it seems like nothing inspires more debate amongst clergy and lay people than the question of where to put the announcements—you’ll find that the prayer book is surprisingly quiet about that subject! Why is there so much passion in regards to the matter of “how” we worship God? Especially given the passage we read today from Isaiah… “I cannot endure solemn assemblies…” I mean, it seems fairly clear here, forget the worship and do the deeds! The prophet Isaiah has some strong words to say about folks who make a show of worship, who think that the pageantry and performance of the thing are adequate alone. And, he even uses the conversation stoppers…Sodom and Gomorrah to do so (it would be like mentioning hurricane Katrina in a planning session at a planning meeting of the army corp of engineers). Everyone knows how bad it was…and no one wants to experience such hardship again and would do anything they could to prevent it.

That said, why then do we persist in showing up Sunday after Sunday? Why is it that Christian worship has continued with the combination of book, washing, meal, song and speech? Why is any of this important to us…as we ponder the mandate “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. There are many in this world and in this community that do all of these things…without ever setting foot in ANY place of worship. So is what we do here, is it merely some relic of times past? Are this worship and gathering relevant to the world AT ALL? Are we wasting our time and God’s by gathering here at Church of Our Saviour?

My calling would argue that this is not wasted time…but time that is essential to our survival as Christians and as human beings; it is time that is essential for helping us to become the people that “God intends us to be”. We are the better for this gathering…it reminds us. It reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. For, in reading scripture we are able to hear the story of our people—it connects us to our history and we are challenged to take this history, learn from it and discover its relevance to contemporary times. In sharing song we are expressing our faith and our collective ability to participate in creating something beautiful. In the water of baptism we express our connection to each other and God—acknowledging the presence of God in the here and the now. In the bread and wine we are given the opportunity each week to gather at God’s table and participate in a meal of reconciliation, remembrance and expansiveness. Book, washing, meal, song and speech—these are simple things, holy things, things that may seem irrelevant when juxtaposed with the demanding needs of our lives and our times. But, they are important to us…and at the center of it all is the act of reconciliation.

From the perspective of our faith the Sunday liturgy, the “things” we do are the primary means by which we engage in the ministry of reconciliation. It brings us together, it reminds us of God’s mercy and it becomes a means by which we can step outside of ourselves and the small worlds in which we spend so much of our time. I know that if I didn’t go to church I wouldn’t have to deal with people I would normally have never met in my day to day life. Our friends would be other youngish professionals…we would probably spend more time attending doctor parties and only hang out with other folks with small children. And, in having only friends who are “like us” life may seem less complicated—with less potential for disagreement and come with the comfort of shared assumptions about life. But this sort of social isolationism is not the kingdom of God that is intended—a kingdom where everyone is invited to the banquet. In Lathrop’s work “Holy Things” he asserts that the Sunday liturgy is the principal reminder we have the “God welcomes sinners”.

In gathering together a disparate group of people, in welcoming everyone and coming together with no barriers to admittance we are reminding ourselves and each other of the realities of the wider world and the love of God for everyone. Sunday makes the poor relevant to those of us who are not poor; Sunday makes the widows real for those of us whose friends are mostly young; Sunday brings children into the midst of those whose only encounter with children during the week is getting stuck behind a school bus. Sunday brings tax collectors into our midst and makes us the richer for it!

Perhaps worship for us becomes like Zacchaeus’ climbing into the tree. Our worship and indeed the story of Zacchaeus may seem quaint, cute and perhaps even ridiculous by the world’s standards—but it is actually a radical act of seeking out God. In coming here, we demonstrate our desire to be in relationship with God and each other. We demonstrate that who God is matters and that we are longing to be in relationship with each other and are willing to sacrifice our dignity and even our worldly concerns to do so.

“Lord, may our fellowship be the revelation of your presence and turn our daily bread into the bread of life.” {Alternative Service Book; Anglican Church of Canada]

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


One of the stranger aspects of this "clerical" life is that I live a church season or two ahead. So, I am currently deep in the depths of Advent preparation (altho' I'm not entirely sure that's why the Christmas displays are encroaching on the Halloween displays at most of the department stores). This Advent, my colleague and I will be compiling a blog of reflections (both visual and written). In the process of preparing a portion of the written reflections, and in the midst of the ever shorter days this time of year, I find myself pondering light.

The light of Christ most obviously...but what happens when this metaphor is sought out in the day to day? Where is it that we find that light of life and love--

Is it the light flickering through autumn leaves?
Is it the glow of the nightlight in the darkest of the wee small hours?
Is it the stars in their courses?
Is it the smell of beeswax?
Is it reflected in the sanguine pools of your love's eyes?
Is it the porch light beaming as you pull in late from work?
Is it the satellite blinking overhead?
Is it the moment when you turn off the bedside lamp and sink into the pillow?

Sometimes we need the metaphorical and abstract to be made concrete. Where do you find light in your life?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Like A Leper

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15

He was a beautiful child. Dark flashing eyes would light up with mirth at the approach of his mother and he would eagerly reach for anyone who approached, anticipating love, for that is all he knew. As he grew he was taught the prayers and customs of his people and he was an obedient son to his father.

The teachers singled him out for special instruction and care—silently thinking that this child, this smart and beautiful boy, may be called to serve as one of them. The other boys were envious of the special attention he received. They began to wait for him on the road home, they harassed and tormented him in secret. His parents noticed the bruises and dismissed it. Boys will be boys they said with a smile, altho’ it saddened them to see their child walking alone each day.

Then, one day he noticed a spot on his arm. He pulled his sleeves down firmly and hoped it would go away. The spot grew and multiplied and soon he was tugging down his sleeves constantly. He knew, he knew what had happened to others whose skin had suddenly turned on them. They lived outside of town far away from those they loved. On occasion the boys would dare each other to edge closer and closer to where they were camped, throwing stones and epithets that hurt worse than any hard flung pebble. They weren’t talked about much, but he had seen them run off…chased like harried sheep. He did not want to be like them…so he pulled his cloak ever tighter as his stomach knotted in fear.

Time passed and the other children noticed that as the weather warmed he did not shed his cloak. It became a game to taunt him, trying to pull away his cloak…laughing at his protestations. Finally, one day a group of boys cornered him. And, as tears poured from his eyes they took his cloak and pulled up his sleeves, they saw. "Leper!" they cried, as they turned from him, afraid that his shame would be theirs.

The parents of the other children came to his home--the one place he had always been safe from harm, safe from others. And in anxious, muttered tones he saw the adults discuss him and glance again and again towards the corner in which he sat huddled—studying words of scripture which he had already committed to heart, “He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and full of compassion…” The boy grew red with anger--where was the grace and compassion, where was God?

His mother, with tears in her eyes began to pack a bag—his warmest cloak, food and water. And, then, despite his protestations she explained what he already knew. Leprosy. It would not be safe for him to stay in their village or even their home. His parents could not and would not shelter him. To allow him to stay would bring shame upon his entire family and the risk, the risk of contamination was too great.

His protestations turned to angry tears. His parents had always loved him and protected him. Yet, here were his father and mother escorting him to the edge of town and turning away…not even a kiss of peace upon his brow.

Lost: his home, his family, his faith. He was as one dead…no fellowship but his own.


The recent suicides by LGBT young people who feel that death is preferable to the loss of friends, family, homes and their faith is the lens through which I read the propers this week. And, as I reflect upon the ways in which people bully, terrorize, shame and torture those who are different, I am left with the responsibility to connect the propers to a world in which children die because they have been treated as lepers.

What does it mean to be treated as a leper? As a pariah in our own home's and community's? In biblical times, leprosy was not the disease we refer to as Hansen's disease. It was a blanket term for a wide range of skin conditions (such as psoriasis, eczema, or particularly bad teen acne). And, not only was no differentiation made between these skin problems, the skin condition was seen as a punishment by God for sins that the "leper" had committed. Blaming the victim, anyone?

That said, the "boy" I describe above (in a fictional take on the events leading up to the isolation of one of the ten lepers) would have forever carried a social stigma that would have led to continuing isolation and suffering. And, this suffering and isolation would have been understood by EVERYONE as his own fault.

This same blaming/shaming happens in the aftermath of violence inflicted upon LGBT individuals. The litany begins: if she'd prayed harder; he obviously did something wrong; he should have known what would have happened if he walked down the street dressed that way; if only he hadn't been so "flaming"; if only he'd stayed in the closet; if only she'd stayed celibate; you can't come out to grandma it would kill her; just don't flaunt it; that's so gay; your so gay.

Has the church ever taken a stand against this kind of bullying? Have we as a church ever publicly said that this kind of treatment of others is WRONG? Have we repented of those times in our own lives, our own history in which we have excluded, isolated, shamed and punished?

There is an architectural oddity in many medieval churches--the lepers squint. A window cut so that the lepers, who were not allowed to enter the church, could observe the worship. I can only begin to imagine the pain of watching others gather in a community of love and praise while being left to huddle outside, alone. The good news is that churches don't have squints anymore as a standard feature of their architecture. We can look back on them as a quaint, if cruel, oddity--seemingly irrelevant to the life of the church today. Our former cruelties and bigotries rendered harmless.

We have made progress both as a church and as individuals. We have learned and grown and been transformed (remember when women could not serve as priests...much less partnered lesbian mama priests?). This not only gives me hope, but it causes me to wonder, what steps we will need to take to assist in the incoming of the kingdom of God and ensure the dignity of EVERY human being?

What can we do to make it better? Because that is indeed God's will get better (nods to Dan Savage and the youtube it will get better campaign!). The kingdom of God is at hand and it is a place where bullies and bullying do not exist. It is a place where love triumphs and hatreds cease. It is a place where no one is marginalized and all are treated with equal measure of grace and compassion. It will get better.