Saturday, November 24, 2012

When We Are Kings--A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Within our context, kings and kingdoms may seem relatively fantastical.  Renaissance festivals, royal weddings, and symbolic monarchies are about all most of us know of kings.  If we have small children in our lives, we may spend time with royal prince and princesses as we engage in their imaginative play.  Princes fight dragons, princesses twirl...and the script is one in which there is always a happy ending.  Christ the king becomes the sanitized version of this happy score--crowned with an ever larger and more elaborate crown.  

But, in many ways this “crowning of Christ” was a politically daring act.  For, in 1925 when Pope Pius XI created the feast of Christ the King, he did so as a very public check upon Benito Mussolini who had declared for himself  “earthly supremacy”.  The pope’s work and words served as a reminder that true supremacy is not of this earth and that Mussolini is not, and would never be, the king of creation or the alpha and the omega.  The feast day was also intended to remind Christians that we are called to serve Christ beyond any earthly ruler or secular desire.  

But, as we move further and further from the realities of are we to connect to the language we hear today?

I grew up in Hawai'i, and the imagery and reality of monarchy was more recent.  As a child I learned about the unification of the islands under King Kamehameha.  I learned about the bloody battles and high price of this unity.  Eventually, I learned about the overthrow of the monarchy, and the injustices perpetrated against Native Hawaiians as lands and traditions were overwhelmed by outsiders.   This history was woven with the persistent message that wrongs had been done and reparations still needed to be made.    

In this fashion, when I hear the scripture today, I hear the promise of wrongs righted and reconciliation and peace taking hold.  I hear the promise of a king that cannot fail, and a reign that surpasses all.  And, in some ways I wonder if that is part of what the early Christians resonated with as they heard the language of kingdom and kingship.  I can imagine their thrill at the notion that under the reign of Jesus’ the world would be set to rights...and that they were to serve in bringing about that reign.  

There is an approach to reading scripture that theologians have described as “reading the Bible from the margins”.  So, when I think of the injustices done in Hawaii and throughout the world to indigenous peoples I can begin to gain a better understanding of the context within which Jesus and his disciples lived.  

Because, unlike most of us, the early Christians were a small and persecuted minority.  Subject to the imperial power of Rome, they existed more or less on the margins of society.  Early Christians met in private homes and upper rooms, quiet gatherings in the catacombs where goods and meals and coin were shared.  Each to each, needs were met and stories were shared.  

These early Christians, these followers of “the way” lived in the midst of political and social unrest.  From the zealots who embraced the notion of violent overthrow to the Essenes and the community at Qumran who had stepped more or less “off the grid”--Jesus lived within a culture that was actively searching for a new way of being in the world. 

And, using the language of the culture--Jesus and his followers described a kingdom, a kingdom that operated outside of the dominant culture of Rome, a kingdom that was not of the world, a kingdom ruled by God.  A kingdom that exists in order to tear down the need for kings.   

This is a new kind of kingdom, and for the early Christians, Jesus represented a new way of being.  Neither violent revolutionary or hermit, he stood outside all conventions and paradigms.  He turned our notions of kings and kingdoms upside down--operating outside of the rules that everyone “thought” they knew about how to live and who to serve.  This kingdom didn’t exist in order to justify or sustain the domination of the powerful.  Those who followed Jesus, those who proclaimed his kingdom come,

died on crosses.

were imprisoned.

were stoned.

And, in the midst of this milieu they told the stories and shared the meals.  The stories what we call the canon and eventually...eventually, somehow...

Their stories became the story of the powerful.    

There is something startling to realize that stories that emerged out of a small, persecuted minority have became the texts used by a massive and powerful majority.  And, no matter how much it makes us squirm...we, as Christians in the world today, are part of that majority.  

Now we may not identify as kings, but by the measures of the world we hold great power.  There is a website called the global rich list.  You can enter your income and it tells you where you stand in the world in relationship to others and their wealth.  If you make more than 1,000 dollars a year you are in the top 44 percent of the world.  And, I imagine most of us make much, much more.  So, how are we to read the Bible from the margins?  And, how are we to hear this proclamation of kingdom?  When our reality is SO different from that of the early Christians, how do we find meaning in this language?

We cannot ignore the truth that we hold a great deal of power in the world--for example 7.2 percent of congress currently identifies as Episcopalian (this when only 2% of the United States population does).  And, given this truth--what truth are we testifying to in our actions and our words?  How do our whole lives reflect the reign of Jesus rather than the fruition of our own desires?  John of Patmos writes that we have been made to be a kingdom.  If this is indeed the case how are our lives a reflection of the will of God?  How do we testify to the truth?

First of all, we are called to learn and embrace the truths that Christ offers.  One aspect of which is that we are called to be a resurrection people, a people who bring new life, new hope and a new kingdom.  But how are we to do this?  In the grocery store, in our cubicles, in the waiting rooms and court rooms?  How will we be the kingdom?  It seems like an impossible task--but what Christ gives is the constant reminder that the impossible can and will happen through us.  And in reading the Bible from the margins we are able to more concretely identify the people who we are called to serve and imagine a world set to rights by the love of God.  A love made manifest by our words and actions...

In one famous passage from St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), she writes

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

We carry Jesus within us.  Our privilege and power become tools to serve, to love and to share the truth of God’s love and redemption.  We can testify to the truth and in so doing we can continue a life of service to the one who is and who was and who is to come.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Podcasted Sermon

So, if you want to hear the last sermon I preached (the one posted here) you can get it on i-tunes for free...I'm not sure how long it will be up, but you're more than welcome to take a listen for now.

The Cost of Our Wants

I can't stand listening to myself preach--kind of freaks me out with an "I sound like that!" feeling.  But, you may not have that same aversion.

Or you which case feel free to scrub it from your i-tunes memory faster than I can recite the opening acclamation.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Rerun--Would that be Excessive?

So...last year around this time I posted a reflection on the sentiments that may be driving what seem to be excessive gift giving.  As we gear up for yet another holiday season I thought it deserved a rerun!

Click here to read it again, or for the first time!

 This was taken last Christmas...and we are still grateful for every last one!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The 24th Sunday in Pentecost, When Our Wants Take Precedence over the Needs of Others

Sermon for Propers 27B 

The Essential Things

They are those we try not to notice...

The gleaners in the fields.

Impoverished widows scraping by.

But why, why do we avoid their eyes?  What is so difficult about noticing these people?  

The ones standing at the crossroads, holding signs.  “Homeless veteran, anything helps, God bless”, or “kids at home, need money for food”

The ones removing items from their cart as they realize it’s going to cost too much.  

I realize, I realize that in closing my eyes, in looking away and pretending not to notice...that I feel ashamed.  That somehow I know that I have more than I need, while others, others have less, far less.  

I don’t want to look.

But, I have no choice in the matter.  Stopped at this red light, this moment is captured and I remember that he was lying with his head cushioned by the sign he had been carrying.  Resting, I hope, and not hurt.  We kept driving, on our way to an appointment and running late.  We moved too quickly and it would have been impractical to turn back.  There are other ways to care, to give I thought.  

Excuses I know.  And, I wonder, what the disciples felt when Jesus turned their attention to the woman in the temple.  When they were stopped, when they had no choice but to notice.  These were her only pennies...not enough to help her but everything she had to give.  A paltry offering really, day laborers in the fields made 64 of these coins each day, yet all she had was two--not enough to pay for lodging, not enough for food.  Yet, it was everything.  

And, I wonder, if she felt that she had more than she needed, while others have less.  Need becomes such a relative term here doesn’t it?

What do we need?  

The relentless gallop towards the more secular aspects of Christmas descended upon me on Halloween day--buying candy at 4pm, the first tinny strains of Christmas music weaved through the faux spider webs and remnants of plastic pumpkin displays.  Within days the special “holiday catalogs” from seemingly every place we’ve ever shopped and many places we’ve never shopped began to arrive at our door.  Buy, buy, buy...the perfect gift, the perfect choice...I protest, but we don’t need anything!  

Yet, somehow, the cart is filled and we leave the store with more than I thought we needed--and as we leave we turn at the corner where the veterans stand so often.  Anything helps...but what I have to give seems so little in the face of the want.  And, my spirit shrinks as I think of the full bags in the trunk of the car.  

In many ways, it becomes painful to notice the gleaners in the field.  There they are, Ruth and Naomi just getting by on the leavings from our harvest.  The widow with her coins, I feel ashamed by her generosity and it is becomes so glaringly obvious that there are those with less who offer so much more.   So many in this world have been asked, expected even to give disproportionately, to give more than their due by choice or chance or force or violence.  Folks who have carried more of the burden and who too often go unnoticed when the burden becomes more than they or we can bear.  

Part of me wants to cry out to the widow...”wait, stop, keep your pennies, you need them more than they do!”  But, she will not hear me and she will remain unconvinced.  

Need becomes such a relative and personal thing...

The passage we heard read today as our first reading was an excerpt from the book Journeys of Simplicity.  This is a book in which the author has compiled lists of belongings or things packed for journeys.  In this passage Bilbo Baggins, like so many of the great saints, leaves a life of relative comfort and leisure to go on an epic adventure in which he is called to give up everything to save everyone--does this sound like anyone you know?
On Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's Antarctic Journey, after the destruction of his ship the Endurance by the ice pack, he told his men that they could each carry the clothes on their back, two pairs of boots, 6 pairs of socks, two pairs of mittens a sleeping bag a pound of tobacco and two pounds of personal gear.  To his own pack he "ripped from Queen Alexandra's Bible the flyleaf inscription; the 23rd psalm; a page from the Book of Job...Laid the Bible in the Snow and walked away"  

What would you keep on such a journey?  What would you write down on your list of essentials?  As we read and hear and see the folks who have suffered through hurricane Sandy, and continue to suffer in the aftermath, perhaps our understanding of what we need has changed?

When we pack a bag, or pack up our house or apartment what do we keep?  What do we put in fire proof boxes or on our mental checklist of things to "save" should something happen?  Feel free to take a moment to jot down that list on your bulletin somewhere.  

I imagine that your list is surprisingly short. Does this mean that everything else is an extra, an abundance that we have in excess?  

Don’t worry, it’s not that simple, there are many things which we have that feed our body, our mind and our soul that just don’t make the list.  There are things that bring us joy and make us more of who we want to be and are called to be, and I am not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy or have these things.  But, perhaps in thinking of how very little we truly need, we can grow to appreciate how very much we do have.  

I also wonder what their lists would be, the disciples, the clergy, the widow...even Jesus.  

What would they have found essential?  

What would be on their lists?  In some way I imagine that distilled down to the essentials all of the lists would bear a surprising similarity--and perhaps could be boiled down to those things that remind them of who they are and who they love.  Do the things on your list serve as reminders?  Are they the irreplaceable things that allow us to retain our dignity and care for those we love?  

We humans need surprisingly little it turns out...and what Jesus in particular calls our attention to in this passage is the reality that too often our abundance comes at the cost of others.  Part of the challenge of this Gospel is that we are being asked if we are the ones who devour widow’s houses.  

And, as we ponder this painful question I ask, does what we consider essential cost the livelihood, the dignity of another human being?  Do our wants ignore or exploit the needs of others?  Who bears the heaviest burdens and pays the highest price?  

These are challenging questions for all of us--does power and privilege always come at the expense of others?  If we are lucky enough to enjoy power and privilege do we have an obligation, an obligation grounded in the teachings of Jesus and indeed the entirety of scripture, to care for others?  Scripture, the Christ we follow and our traditions would indicate that caring for others is, indeed, central to our faith. 

So, back to that corner, the one near my house and the strip mall, the one where the veterans stand.

I reach into my glove box for the strip of McDonald’s certificates we keep for the folks at this light.  Perhaps a hot cup of coffee, a sandwich--something, anything.    

I can’t pretend that this little bit will fix anything or anyone--it is a paltry offering in the grand scheme of things.  But, perhaps in noticing, in seeing, I am working towards the calling of Christ to all of us...the calling to seek and serve Christ in all persons, love my neighbor as myself and honor the dignity of every human being.  It’s another list of essentials isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Day After Feels a Bit Closer to the End of Days

My state defeated an amendment filled with hate and instead filled out the ballot in love.  Every state with LGBT marriage on the ballot voted for equality and love.  Love wins.  Of course, we always knew it would--but then again, it also seemed like such an impossible possibility.

I'm not sure whether I need a retreat or a REALLY big party.  There is something about feeling a bit closer to the Kingdom of God that makes me long for that heavenly neighborhood of love, mercy and compassion, where crying and pain will be no more, and where there are awesome coffee shops and bookstores and where ALL of the folk I love live nearby.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


There are certain cultural customs that I've always held a tad bit of disdain trick or treating for Halloween.

When I was a kid we didn't have any neighbors to trick or treat at--living in the middle of a field pretty much limited the door to door knocking options.  So, my mom would drive us from relative's home to relative's home (maybe going to 5 or 6 houses total...which took all night).  There was a decent amount of candy but it wasn't that big of a deal--and was mostly centered on showing relatives our costumes.

When we lived in Maine, during seminary and residency, we actually got a few trick or treaters--I would buy candy and we would gleefully sit outside ready to hand out handfuls.  15 or 20 kids would trickle by over the course of the evening--all in costume, all of whom were at an age to enjoy the excessive sugar consumption but not so old that I wondered where they had parked the car.  It was a fun way to feel like a part of our neighborhood, but I never knew who the kids were.  It certainly didn't feel terribly relational.

Last year we had recently moved to our urban neighborhood and realized the scale of halloween on our block--trick or treaters by the score!  As for our own small family, we trotted our duckling around to some of the neighbors to show him off in his adorable costume.  There was no candy involved and I said "no thank you" to the kind offers of sweets for the mamas.  Then, a bit later in the evening, we began the ritual of passing out candy to the 100 (!) or so trick or treaters who came by.  I didn't mind the marginally costumed teens, but what I couldn't figure out was the number of adults with young infants (well under a year--often under 6 months) who were out collecting candy.  Somewhat appalled, I would hand over the loot as they awkwardly juggled a costumed and bunting clad bundle alongside their bucket.  It was a relatively fun evening, but I felt that I could take it or leave it--my perception of greed and excess definitely colored my understanding of the holiday.

This year, we started preparing our 2.5 year old for Halloween WEEKS in advance.  A sensitive sort with some stranger anxiety, I knew that our son would need to be prepped in order to deal with the concept of children and adults in costumes.  While I knew that I could just keep him in on Halloween I had become aware of the scope of Halloween as the invitations and opportunity to "dress up" began to pile up.  From the GLBT family halloween party, to toddler music class, to playgroup...there were going to be several events we would be participating in (as members of our community) which would involve costumes.

So, two months ago we purchased a couple of "lift the flap" children's books in which a costumed child (or animal) was on the flap and the unmasked child or animal was visible when you lifted the flap.  As Halloween drew nearer I started calling it, "Halloween, the night when we dress up in silly outfits and visit our neighbors".  I wanted to emphasize the relational aspects of the holiday--largely because I'd begun to realize that just because I wasn't too excited about the notion, it is a night that our neighbors and friends get very excited about.  He seemed to embrace the concept but I was still concerned because these lift the flap books and talks about "visiting our neighbors" didn't really offer up the level of macabre that awaited.

Then, it arrived, October 31st--crisp, cool and properly autumnal without being too cold (a seeming rarity this time of year!).  Clad in his minimalist bear costume (I wanted little fuss, and I didn't want to stress our boy with uncomfortable costume bits or run the risk that he would reject anything that was too unusual) we marched down to playgroup (where he enjoyed seeing his friends in their silly outfits) and then we went about our day.  Errands were run, meals were eaten.  Then at 4 in the afternoon, I picked up what appeared to be the last two bags of candy at and headed home with my bear cub.  I grew increasingly excited about visiting--largely because our late talking boyo had largely mastered an understandable "trick or treat" over the course of the day (we won't discuss the distress this late talking has caused his verbose and extroverted mama!).

So, a solid hour before the trick or treating would begin in earnest we headed over to neighbors (we'd asked about coming by early, boyo doesn't nap anymore and I knew that even pushing his bedtime back to 7pm might be a big stretch).  "Duh oh deeett!!!!" he proclaimed at the house next door...and his eyes grew large as he realized that a lollipop had just been popped into his bucket.  "Duh ooh" (thank you) he said at my prompting and on we went.  Next, we visited with the much beloved big girls who live two doors down (7 and 5, they are a sweet duo who are kind and gentle with our boy).  "Duh oh deet"--another lollipop was presented...and fresh baked cookies!!!

Suddenly realizing that these were "his" treats, the boyo handed me a lollipop and looked at me expectantly.  "Yes" I said, "this is Halloween and you get to have special treats"--I handed him the unwrapped sucker and joy exploded across his face.  Blue tongued now, he held hands with the big girls for pictures.

Next, the house across the street where a sometimes babysitter lives.  At 13, he's a sweet boy and is all smiles for our little.  The ritual words were uttered and a mini kit kat bar made it's way into the bucket.  The evening progressed and we went to 6 houses on our street--and at every house smiles greeted us and friends cheered on our little guys words.  Two (!) lollipops and a mini kit kat made their way into his belly and we headed home to hand out our "candy for sharing".  By handfuls he would plop the assorted gummis and sweets into the proffered bags and buckets.  We talked about each costume that we saw, we talked about how some made him nervous and the child wearing the "Scream" mask obligingly lifted it to show a freckled face.  

This is roughly when I realized what we'd done that night...

  • We'd experienced unconditional generosity from neighbors
  • I'd been given the opportunity to say "yes" and give the gift of unexpected permissiveness for an evening
  • my son had learned a bit about having a little but then giving a lot as he handed out "candy for sharing"
  • he had the opportunity to practice what it means to have people understand what you say

and I felt myself get knit more firmly into the fabric of our community

  • "Remember the house we saw with the paper pumpkins in the window, these boys made those"
  • "Remember last year when he wondered into your house to visit when you opened the door?  He was so little then!"
  • "You can go over and say 'boo' to K (our next door neighbor) but don't go any farther, mama will stand right here and watch you"

The assorted ghosties and goblins thronged through the streets and we pushed bedtime back to the late hour of 7:20--yup, we live dangerously in these parts!  And, each hand that was proffered, each bag and pillow case and bucket--I realized that each one held a story alongside the candy.

The teen trying to hold onto childhood.  The adult long waiting for a child to share the night with.  The children with visible special needs who needed to be helped in the choosing of a sweet or who stopped to feel the mums at the door, drawn in by the sensory wonder of the clumps of yellow flowers--children and adults who were enjoying participating in something that everyone else does too.  The toddlers up late, learning to trust that good things await.

I get it now...Halloween is pretty spectacular.

He was so little for his first Halloween!