Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tragic Bemusement

He is so young,
And death is such an abstract,
Yet terrifying concept
And he wonders why we "no come back" like Jesus

He suggests moving
To "make room"for more people
As a means of escaping death
And achieving immortality

Concerns over a beloved Uncle's
Exercise habits
As he explores the reality
Of three dead grandparents

He is a boy who wept last week
Out of fear
That God, the immortal,
May have been bitten by a meat eating dinosaur.

Such concern.
And my heart breaks
That his will one day be broken
And I pray that it is when we are all

Very, very, very, very

(Yesterday I officiated at a funeral in which the 60-something "baby boy" of the deceased could not speak for weeping…and it was then I bit my lip to hold back tears)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Sermon for All Saints (and a bit of a homage to Lesbia Scott...the unfortunately named author of my next door neighbor's favorite hymn)

All Saints Year C, November 3, 2013

I am well aware of the stately elegance and grace--the amazing harmony and hymnody which we are privileged to enjoy as we worship God in this place today.  

When I spoke last week with the organist/choirmaster of a church I served in Ohio, I told him about the music that the choir was working on for today.  His response,

“Durufle, they must be good”.  

The choir’s diligence and dedication aptly demonstrates to me the amazing effort that goes into creating worship meant to glorify God.  The music, in its beauty, serves as a reminder of the gifts that God has given and the interwoven voices an effective symbol of how the many parts of the body become one for a greater purpose.  The body of Christ.  And, one of the greatest joys I experience celebrating with all of you is the opportunity to blend my voice with those surrounding me and in that blending finding a whole that feels wrought through with beauty.  

The blending of voices in music is sort of like the stained glass windows--a single piece of colored glass holds little meaning, yet when combined with so many others something much greater than the single shard is revealed.  

Music allows us to experience the divine in powerful ways.  Rich with theology, deeply woven with scripture--music gives a shape and structure to our worship that continuously amazes me.  And, it seems only fitting that we continue in that vein by offering up more music.  Now, no one has ever accused me of glorifying God with my musical aptitude, so, please humor me for a moment.  And, if you have pity on me, join in...(it’s in the hymnal, 293)

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

As I was reflecting on this feast day of All Saints, I found myself expounding in a dozen different directions.  The powerful witness of those who have gone before, the instructions for how to live a Christian life we find in the beatitudes today, 

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you...Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Then there is the letter to the Ephesians in which we are reminded that we have inherited hope and as inheritors of that hope we are called to give praise to God through our love for all the saints.  

Or, if I were to be bold...an exposition on how the author of Daniel uses the imagery of the four kingdoms to introduce a greater kingdom still--the kingdom of God which surpasses all powers or principalities.  A kingdom in which all earthly divisions cease and we all serve the same God and the broken, factionalized world becomes one.  

Esoteric stuff, and words like orthopraxic and orthodoxic were typed and deleted and typed and deleted.

Deleted, because it became clearer to me that what we celebrate today is quite simple.

Yet, like many simple things we have cloaked it with words and visions, with complex meanings and intricate steps.  

And, in the midst of my sermon prep, while chatting with my next door neighbor

She asked...”are you going to sing my favorite hymn?”

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus' sake
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there's not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn't be one too.

Of all the hymns, this one a favorite?  Simple and childish.  Lending itself well to silly faces and hand motions.  This hymn?  The one that upon hearing just once gets instantly stuck on repeat in our brains?  

This is a hymn that inspires giggles, yet it speaks (sings) truth in a way that I think belies its simplicity.

As Christians we are called to love a God who loves us.  

It is this love that strengthens us.

And it is the witness of Jesus that inspires us to act justly, and rightly in the world.

And, it is not reserved for just a select few to live and act justly, with love and mercy and compassion...but to all who believe.  

They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.

What a powerful image, a world filled to the brim with saints.  With people emboldened by God’s love and being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  

Saints have been, and are and will be.  People continue to do God’s work in the world.  We are not alone in our mission or our ministry.  

Today we not only declare our own participation in this joyful community of saints, but we also celebrate those who have given witness, those who have inspired us, those who have loved us, those who have lived the word of God in the world and those who have given their entire selves and carried the cross at great cost.

So, it is only fitting that today is also the day upon which we will be dedicating the new Pew Bibles, many of which have been given in memory of some of our own communities saints, as well as our new processional cross.  

Words and lines intersecting into something beyond any page or forged metal part.  Words and lines that when joined to our lives transform us and all we encounter.  Words and lines--defining, liberating, declaring and empowering the joyous community of saints of which we are but a part.  

It is written that,

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Let us pray.

O heavenly God, whose blessed Son taught the disciples in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself: Accept these Bibles which we dedicate here today, and grant that we may so diligently search your hold Word that we may find in it the wisdom that leads to salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

It is written that, 

We will glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, our life and our resurrection.  

Let us pray.

O gracious God, who in your mercy ordained that your Son should suffer death on a cross of shame: We thank you that it has become for us the sign of his triumph and the banner of our salvation; and we pray that this cross may draw our hearts to him, who leads us to the glory of your kingdom; where you live and reign for ever and ever.  Amen.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Coming Out Day

It's funny, really--I think I may have reached a point where I take being out for granted.  I came out at 15/16ish (you know, extroverts!) and have spent the last 20 years of my life in varying stages of peace and anxiety around various aspects of my identity.  But, the last few years have been ones of peace and it is from within that peace that I managed to completely forget about National Coming Out Day (October 11th).

But, it's an important opportunity to remember that there are far too many folks in this world who will never have the opportunity to be at peace within their selves, their families and their communities.  That many, many, many folks are still cast out, shamed, ridiculed, excluded, denigrated and killed, on account of their gender or sexual identity.

So, today, the day after...

I pray for the hurting, the broken, the shamed and scorned.  The folks for whom the act of coming out becomes an act of martyrdom.  I pray for those who give witness to a life lived openly and honestly.  I pray for folks who fully embrace the truth of who our creator has made them to be and in that truth found joy and peace.  I pray for children who learn by example what it means to be kind and compassionate--to love and embrace both those like and unlike them.  I pray for the children who have learned to hate themselves when the adults in their lives give witness to hate and ignorance.  I pray for the victims of murder and suicide--when hatred and despair becomes so all consuming that destruction seems the only viable option.  I pray for those who live in fear and secrecy.  I pray for those who proclaim boldly and dance in the streets the joy of their being.  I pray for those for whom every grace is to be embraced as exactly who they are.  I pray for those who will die without seeing mercy.  I pray for those who will die before justice is obtained.  I pray for those who are born, that their birth will herald a new day of love.  I pray for the LGBTAQ people of this world, that our numbers will swell as all people become allies working for equality and the human right to experience and live in love.  I pray for the bullied, that they will find protectors and safe spaces.  I pray for the bullies, that they may find learning and in that learning love and in that love empathy and compassion.  I pray for people who have been destroyed by the very faith communities that have promised to uphold and love them.  I pray for faith communities that have violated their covenants.  I pray for the parents who turn their backs on their own children and the children who have been broken by those who have formed them. I pray.  I pray.  I pray.

And I pray for my children, who will experience coming out in each new school year, each new community and in each new encounter.  That what I take for granted will be granted them.  That we will be able to equip them with all they need to know that not only is love the law...

That love is the truth.  That love is the center.  That love is.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Saying "Yes": A Sermon for Francis the Fool

Sometimes I feel like church is a place full of "no" and "stop".

No, you can't put the kneeler down
Stop talking please
You need to sit still
No, you can't go to coffee hour until church is over
Stop playing under the tree, it's time for church
Stop squirming
Sit still
Stand up
Sit down
Shhh, I will tell you later 

And today, 
Shhh, no bark!!  

Now, I totally get why the “nos” are there (whenever I sit with my family I’m pretty much like a non-stop no machine!)  and respect for sacred space, silence and the needs of the gathered community are to be observed (when possible!)  

But, I can't help but wonder how St. Francis would have felt about this litany of no and stop and shhh.

And, for this I am thankful for days like today, where the answer can be yes, yes to noise, and confusion, yes to joyful exclamation!  Yes, you can bring your fish to church!  Yes, your lovey can leave the house today!  Stand up and look!  Sing as loud as you can!  

The saint who sang the sun up in the morning and the moon in at night.  The saint who chatted with the birds.  The saint who welcomed Clare.  The saint who stood naked before the bishop and proclaimed himself a fool for God.  A saint who asked his brothers to sing him into heaven as he stepped out of this life and into the arms of God.  

The saint who calls us to find delight and joy and love in the entirety of creation.  No matter how big or how small.  

The Gospel we read today in honor of St. Francis is traditionally used for this saint's day because it reminds us that we do not control where or how God's revelation will be made manifest.

That revelation is not limited to the learned, to the seminary trained, to the folk we may look up to as somehow more spiritually profound than us.  In fact, in the words and actions of Francis we are reminded that revelation is not limited to human beings.  

The birds proclaim the glory of God, the sun in its courses the moon by night...

And, in glorying in creation, in finding grace beyond any pages or ivy walls--we are open to learning more about God in places we may have never thought to look and in people whom we had once ignored and in animals who are all too easily neglected.  Francis' life was marked by his disavowal of his inherited power and privilege and the sheer joy he took in the love of God.  And for Francis, much of that love was made manifest in the beauty of creation.  

Francis' found the entirety of creation to be a bearer of God's love.  He saw the world around him as a true gift, to be revered for it's beauty and gave ready thanks for all that God has brought forth in creation.

What would it be like to see everything around us as gift, as symbol and sign of God made manifest to us?  

How would our lives be transformed, if we met each moment, each creature, each breeze, each ray of sun, each spark of star, with thanksgiving?

Would we see the newborn Christ in the squawking infant?  Would we see the first day of creation in the rising sun?  Would we wonder at the leviathan, the whales and the elephants?  Would the miraculousness of the bumblebee whose flight defies logic startle us into praise?

Is it any wonder that the prevailing themes of Francis’ life were those of joy and love?  A joy and love that was a natural extension of thanksgiving as we see in his famous sermon to the birds.  

“My sweet little sisters, oh, birds of the sky, you are bound unto heaven, to God, your Creator. In every beat of your wing and every note of your song praise Him. He has given you the greatest of gifts, the liberty of the air. You neither sow, nor reap, yet God provides for you the most delicious morsels, streams and lakes to quench your thirst, hill and dale for your home, tall trees to build your nests, and the most beautiful clothing, a change of feathers with every season. You and your kind were preserved in the Ark of Noah. Clearly, Creator loves you most dearly, His gifts flow forth in abundance; so please be careful of the sin of thanklessness, and always sing out your praises for the Lord, our God!”

If God has such care, such love for these sweet sisters, how much love for us--what a wonder that God loves us most dearly!

Us and them, us and the creatures of the earth, us and the sun and the moon.  

The unification of all creation is one of the postmarks of the vision we are offered of the kingdom of God--all creation.  And, in witness to what this vision can be...

Francis offers us the wolf of Gubbio.  

In the town of Gubbio the townspeople felt themselves under siege.  A wolf was killing and eating their sheep and other stock.  And, even worse, the wolf had become a threat to the people of the village--killing those who confronted him.  In desperation they called for Francis.  Francis went out into the forest and found the wolf.  

And...reasoned with him.  Spoke to him with love and compassion and in doing so the wolf repented.  And, then the wolf and Francis walked back into the village and the horrified townspeople saw their enemy, the wolf, in the flesh.  

Before they could strike the wolf down, Francis explained the wolf’s contrite heart and the wolf’s promise to cease killing.   He then enjoined the townspeople to remember their calling as Christians to forgive.  

Forgive, the wolf?!  But, the townspeople listened to Francis’ words and they saw the wolf’s hunger and desire for forgiveness.  They agreed to feed the wolf from their own larders and the wolf vowed to protect them.  

And years later, when the wolf died, the villagers mourned the death of a friend.  

In relationship, in knowing and listening to those they had previously feared, peace was obtained, fear was set aside, and love grew.  How many and much was transformed by listening and hearing God in each other.  How great a leap that enemies found mutuality and in that leap grew closer to the vision of wholeness we see in God’s creative action!

A whole community.  Where all are welcome.  The quiet, the loud, the still, the wiggly, the crying, the barking, the mewling!  Those with dirty knees from under the pine tree play, and those with the finest suits one can find.  We have the opportunity to be an echo of God’s vision for creation!  There are no enemies here, only folks imbued with love and grace.  Let it begin here and let it end when all of God’s creation is gathered together in a love without walls or boundaries.  

Let it begin and let us wonder, let us sing, let us proclaim, let this be a time of yes!  Yes you are part of this creation!  Yes, you are welcome to the table!  Yes, you may partake of the feast laid before you!    

Yes, you can have a truck in your Easter picture...

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Proper 18C, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made"

Readings, as always, can be found here  

In Which Politics Become Personal and the Scripture Even More So

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

What would it be like to stand in front of mirror and say these words,

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made”

To stand in the face of those we love and say you, you, you

Are fearfully and wonderfully made.

To look upon those we hate or despise,

And say,

You, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

As you are, knit together in wholeness, formed with intention.

With cause and with the potential to be transformed again, and again.  

“The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”

Who you are now, is not who you will be.  Who you have been is not who you are.  Fearfully and wonderfully made.

Do you believe this truth?  Are you able to wonder in awe at who you are and who you may become?  

This is not intended as some sort of self-esteem boost.  This is not meant to be a pep talk.  It is meant to be a proclamation of truth.  

In a world that so often dehumanizes us, in a world where we speak of “rape culture” and the commodification of other human beings is par and parcel of our economic system...

What does it mean to see ourselves AND EVERYONE ELSE as fearfully and wonderfully made?

In a world that counts bodies as numbers and encourages the cost benefit analysis of  offering aid...

What would it mean to say, you, you behind the gun, with your finger upon that button, with your hands seeking to shield your eyes from the searing pain.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

This has been, like so many other weeks and months and years have been, a devastating time to read the news.

Delivered to our doorstep, in the resonant tones of the radio journalist, available with the dance of our fingers across the keyboard or a swiping motion across a screen.

There, the enemy, the victim, the other...

And, in truth, ourselves.  

Because if we are to hold true that we are one body in Christ.  Than it is our broken, tormenting, tormented body that is offered up in front of us.  It is our family that has been enslaved or bound.

It is our heart that is chained.

The fearfully made in fear, the wonderfully made rent asunder.

My soul quakes and I feel helpless.  Can a body so broken be healed, can a pot so deformed by evil be reshaped by the potter’s hands?  

I don’t mean to be obtuse, to hide behind poetry or homiletic device and euphemism to avoid reference to the real and to the truth.

And, it occurs to me how often we bend and weave as we avoid speaking words that might offend.

One of the characters in the television show Scrubs is reminded of how she once tried to be the “doctor who never says terminal”.  Tragically, and comedically, it becomes immediately clear that as a physician she cannot continue in this vein.  Her patients will die, and she must be able to speak of pending death clearly.  She and her patients are human.  

So, here we are, mid-way through a sermon during a week in which our country and we debate military intervention in Syria.  And, I am just now naming the conflict.  But, it is not just a country, it is not just a conflict.  It is life.  It is the destruction of people fearfully and wonderfully made, by people just as fearfully and wonderfully made.  Will we, like “the doctor who never says terminal” be Christians who never see our own brokenness?

In seminary I wrestled with the notion of just war and I sought to understand how Christian theologians could come to the conclusion that any war could be just.  But, in a world where our attempts to imitate God’s mercy pale with our use of justice...
I began to understand that I ask the wrong question.  Rather than, what “makes any war just” I must ask, “what is the most loving response to this crisis, to this moment, to this question?”

And, since I am an Episcopal priest I don’t attempt to answer this question for you.  I don’t tell you what conclusion you should or must come to.  Rather, I ask--

What is the most loving response when the clay collapses under pressure, when we see the enslavement of human beings who we have learned to call friend?  Or even more challenging, the enslavement of human beings who we have learned to dehumanize?

One of my Presbyterian colleagues, teaching elder Julie Craig, suggests turning to the Gospel and claiming the words of Christ as our starting point for gaining an understanding of where we might begin to act in a broken world rife with conflict...

“Now, it seems clear that this story (that of the dishonest steward in Luke 16) offers not only a prescription for saving national face, but it specifically proscribes how an alleged “Christian nation” should act. We cannot pretend that we are living in a peaceful time. That’s a lie. If we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But we can move forward. There is a way.

We can make for ourselves friends with the wealth that we have accumulated through various just and unjust means. We can make allies for ourselves by using what we were willing to spend on destruction. We can heal our reputation and show that we are trustworthy with the great lot that we have been given. It is all within our grasp.” http://revgalblogpals.org/2013/09/06/the-pastoral-is-political-solving-syria/ 

So, given this example of how one might approach political issues through our understanding of what Christ calls us to be in the world...

How might we hear our readings today in light of the newspaper I hold in my hands?

Are we willing to take unpopular stances?  Are we able to see shared humanity in friend and enemy?  Are we willing to make sacrifices and carry our share of the cross’s weight?  

We may come to conclusions that separates us from our family and friends as we seek to adhere to the Gospel and seek love at every turn.

But, when we seek love at every turn, when we embrace the offering of love we become liberators where we were once captors, we become free when we were once enslaved...Onesimus’ story becomes our story, Philemon’s story becomes our story, Paul’s story becomes our story.  When we seek love at every turn we truly become disciples of the Jesus we call Christ.  

Onesimus freedom begins when Paul recognizes him as a brother.  What will it take for us to understand that the people this world enslaves are our “own heart”?  What will it take for us to answer with love when the world calls us to hate?  

As we step into what we call our “program year” I seek to remind us that what we are learning is vital, it is critical.  The world can and will be transformed by what you learn in community here, by what you commit to in your baptismal covenants, by the stories that become your own as you hear them again and again.  

What we do here matters.  It is relevant.  It is critical to the our survival and the healing of our broken, despairing world.  

What you learn here, what you do here, it can save you, it can save the world...

So let us begin.  Begin anew with a program year that offers us every chance to proclaim the Gospel.  Begin anew with a season and a cycle that will celebrate birth, recognize death and proclaim resurrection.  Begin anew...begin today.  

A beginning marked by a central truth--you are fearfully and wonderfully made and ever with God.   

fearful and wonderful...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Proper 16C--the Same Goal

Proper 16C, 2013
The propers (readings from scripture appointed for today) can be found here

The Same Goal

My first call following seminary was as the chaplain at a level 1 pediatric trauma center.  It was, and is, the most prestigious children’s hospital in Northeast Ohio and people from all over the world would arrive seeking care for their children.  I had the opportunity to work with people of all faiths--all of whom were centered on, and praying for the same thing, the healing and comfort of their children.  

Because of my experience at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, I have developed an uncomfortable relationship with the healing narratives in scripture--and whenever I read or hear one of these stories I can’t help but remember the broken hearted young mother who hurled a Bible at the resident--adamant that if Jesus could heal in scripture, certainly Jesus could literally heal her son.

It was heart breaking, and there were times I was angered at how these literal renderings of healing inspired what so often seemed to be a false hope--based in a kind of magical thinking,  “If I pray hard enough, if I am good enough, my child will be well”.

I walked gently through this theological understanding, expressing again and again that healing can take many forms, in comfort, in forgiveness, in reconciliation.  In providing comfort and presence, in learning that love too shall endure and that, and painfully so,  some things are too much to carry on our own.  In my time there, I found my own comfort in the image of Mary holding the body of her broken son--God’s intimate knowledge of the depth of human suffering became a comfort.  

It was often horrific, often heart breaking, often just too much and too awful.  And, in the midst of it all I found fellowship with the staff, all working towards the same goal--bringing healing when possible, providing comfort at every turn and accompanying everyone on the journey, no matter how that journey might end.   

The same goal.  No matter the path we walked in faith, no matter the clothes we wore, no matter...we shared the same goal.  

So often in our day to day lives, we are distracted by trivialities.  As a supply priest serving parishes throughout the greater metro, (“substitute preacher” I quip) I find it fairly easy to adapt to the peculiarities of place--customs differing from place to place and community to community.  When folks wonder at my preferences (which I do have) I am honest, but also clear...as long as everyone is still alive at the end of the liturgy I am thrilled.  Working on the cusp of death does that to a person.

But, really, aren’t we all just on the edge...the edge of finding ourselves and everything we know upended.  The edge of pain, the edge of death--but also life and creation.  Now, this isn’t some great nod to moral relativism...rather it is seeing ourselves and God’s love for all creation in those surrounding us.  It is breaking out of the tempting dichotomy that sets up the Pharisees and Sadducees as somehow “evil” and the followers of Jesus (those folk who came to call themselves Christians, those folk who generally identify with Jesus and his disciples in this narrative) as somehow “good”.

It is seeing the truth that we walk this journey through life together, holding life and hope and fear and worry in our hands.  Holding the power to destroy and the power to create...it’s a tenuous balance.  

I can only wonder that the religious authorities held the same balance in hand.  As they served their people, they used the law and the prophets as a means by which to give form and structure to a world that was so often broken and chaotic.  So, the mandate to observe the Sabbath wasn’t just an arbitrary law...it was a commandment founded in the very origin of creation.

After God’s creation of the world, when it was all good and bathed in the perfection of the unbroken vision of God, God rested.  

And when we rest, we are called to observe and honor the holy work that has been done.  Work that we have done in mission and ministry those other six days.  Sabbath becomes a creative act and affirmation all at once and completes the circle of the creative energies of the divine.  Sabbath completes creation.  

So, when Jesus healed the woman broken and bent--making her physically whole in a culture that saw deformity and illness as a sign of both spiritual and physical degradation--the religious authorities saw a tenuous balance upset.  Perhaps their question was “she’s been broken for 18 years, why did you wait for the Sabbath to bring healing?”  Perhaps they wondered, “is it about the healing or proving some point, what are your motivations?”  Or, I wonder, were they afraid that if this one work was performed that others would quickly follow until there was no Sabbath and the circle of creation would be rent beyond repair?

But, I wonder as well, if they were stuck in a definition that was wrought by human hands.  If perhaps their concern with the “liturgy” of the week’s cycle had blinded them to their own deep concern for healing.

Because, their business was about ensuring the wholeness of the community and the continuation of the faith.  Their business was the rituals that restored the ill, infirm and those considered impure to the community following acts of healing.  Their business, like Jesus’, could be described as making the broken whole and lifting up praise to a God whose fire consumes not in any act of destruction but in an act of creation as the broken pieces are refined and the remainder reflects God’s original intention in creation.   

Now, in reflecting on the Gospel today, I remember a conversation I had with one of the interns.  A person of devout and public faith, he and I could clearly identify each other as followers of God in any gathering--his kippah capped head and my clerical collar publicly marked our devotion.  And, we worked together, walking in what we called “other people’s nightmares”.  After sharing in one particularly awful death bed moment we found that we could wrestle together with some of the questions and challenges that we faced as people of faith, people trusting in a good and loving God, who witnessed death after death and suffering tempered by the touch of what felt like helpless hands.  On one late friday afternoon I encountered him in the hallway--wishing him “shabbat shalom” I asked, “so you’re on call in house tonight, what about the Shabbat?”  He paused and related that it wasn’t fair to the other interns to never have to work weekends--but that he focused on the fact that saving lives and providing care would always trump the mandate not to work.  Life saving activities, and the alleviation of suffering were to take priority.  Jewish law, as it has developed over the centuries is adamant “we violate Shabbat to save any human life; that's the Halacha, that's the practice, that's what we do.”

Isn’t that what we are all called to do?  To let go of the trivial, to let those things burn away, to participate in creation and liberate those trapped--even if it means violating the truths and the laws we thought we knew?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Last Week, Whoredom--This Week, Hoarding: A Sermon on Proper 13C

The scripture for today can be found here (click the link if you want to read the scripture before the sermon ;)

Years ago as I thumbed through a catalogue, I laughed at a t-shirt with a cartoon graphic of a woman standing in the center of giant piles of belonging.  Her arms were spread asunder and she was proclaiming boldly, “I’d like more things, please”.  
This is not a specific request or petition--rather it is a general desire to be surrounded, to be filled up, to be fulfilled by an ever growing, never ending, infinite longing for stuff.
And I get it, I get the desire to be able to purchase or acquire more and more and more.  Whether we call it retail therapy, a shopping spree, or merely “running errands” (you know, those times when you run into Target for something and somehow emerge with 90 dollars worth of stuff you didn’t know you “needed”)--it is easy to justify and engage in this sort of compulsive acquisition of things.
In fact, not only are we given constant opportunities to get more stuff, we have been told that this acquisition of stuff is what drives our economy and keeps our country running.  A friend of mine still owns the very expensive boots she purchased following September 11th--she calls them her “patriotic boots” and partially in jest, she justified the purchase as a means of supporting the economy in a scary and uncertain time.    More, more, more we say...and gradually, our wants become our needs in an endless cycle of black friday’s and cyber mondays.
Stuff.  There is actually a book on the subject of stuff, or rather on the compulsion to acquire and keep stuff, it’s entitled, “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,”.  The authors of the book, both psychologists, spent time with compulsive hoarders and sought to understand the psychology behind hoarding.  They describe, “the emotional or magical quality that possessions have.  The connect people to the world.  For that particular hoarder, her possessions connected her to the world around her and without them she felt she would somehow lose that.  They were also a part of her identity; if she got rid of them she would lose a piece of herself”  
Now, we are obviously working with extreme examples of possession--very few of us are actually what we would call hoarders.  But, I think part of our contemporary fascination with hoarders (there are entire television shows devoted to people who suffer from hoarding) is colored by a sense of how perilously close we ourselves come to that edge where clutter becomes pathologic.   And, as we ponder our own understanding of our belongings--how often do we define ourselves by the stuff we have?  How often do we find ourselves feeling adrift or anxious because we have lost a particular item, a piece of memorabilia, a photo, a keep sake?  
Or to take this concept to another arena, how often do faith communities hold onto “stuff” because the stuff defines who they are as a faith community?  Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without a lich gate?  Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without the pews?  Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without the altar?  What about the parish hall, the sacristy, the offices, the good silver and the stained glass?  
Now I am not attacking this building or the beauty that surrounds us--but seeking to remind us that we are called to gather as the body of Christ.  Reminding us that our baptism is into a community of faith not into a particular building--we are called to proclaim the Gospel, not the architecture of the building.
And, here I pause, and find myself blushing a bit.  To be completely honest, all too often I have described St. Clements’ by proclaiming the beauty of the building, the uniqueness of the architecture and the elegance of the liturgy.  Perhaps, the Spirit is nudging me in today’s Gospel to take a harder look at how St. Clements’ proclaims the Gospel--so that in response to folk’s inquiries about where I am “working now” I can describe the beauty of the care you show each other, the passion you have for mission and the intentionality of discerning where Christ is calling this community next.  
So today, I hear a Gospel that asks us to define ourselves by God and not by the stuff we possess.  When Jesus uses the parable of the wealthy man who saves up his surplus he is using a story that would have been familiar to his audience.  It’s a stereotype of sorts--the rich man would have been understood as morally bankrupt, because in the world in which Jesus lived “stuff” was a finite thing.  Like a pie, if one person has a larger piece that means someone else’s piece would be smaller.  Acquiring “more” in Jesus’ community meant that someone else was exploited or impoverished.  And, with this information I am once again reminded that belief in God demands action in the world.
Because, what if we were to take a look at our own acquisitions in that way?  What if our own economy was ruled by the understanding that when we get whatever we want, someone else does not get what they need.  For example, as much as I love a bargain, when we buy cheap goods somebody else was not paid a living wage to produce those goods.  
It may be hard to understand how our acquisitions affect others, but part of what we are being reminded of in this Gospel is that when we acquire without regard to the needs of others, we are isolating ourselves from participation in the greater community.  The critique of the rich man in this parable is grounded in his failure to give from his abundance and in his inability to engage with his community in such a way that he is able to see and then respond to the needs of the poor.  
One of the churches I had the privilege of serving early in my calling had a vestry with a large number of members with backgrounds in finance.  During one particular vestry meeting the vestry was celebrating the financial prudence that had led to a 20,000 dollar budget surplus that year.  The rector interjected strongly at that point in the meeting stating “that’s 20,000 dollars of ministry we have not done”.  
Greed seeks to possess for self alone, and when we are governed by greed we find ourselves standing alone with our stuff.  In an interview, the authors of “Stuff” relate that, “[people who hoard] become more isolated as they get older and that’s in part because family members try to help them, then problems break out and the family fractures and eventually rejects the hoarder because they can’t tolerate being in their home.  And then, because the hoarder can’t have anyone over, they don’t have the ability to reciprocate friendships.”  
When we find the need for stuff trumps our need for each other--we find the sin that breaks relationships and fragments communities.  Colossians warns ”Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).”  This list consists of things that break down relationships and divide us from each other--objectification, using people for our own desires without regard for their dignity, pursuing stuff and in that greedy pursuit exploiting others.  
Perhaps today can be an opportunity to fling our arms asunder and petition for more mercy, more justice, more connections, and more love--because it is this richness that God truly calls us to.