Saturday, March 21, 2015

Gaudior, the Unicorn, Lent 5B

Lent VB, 2015
Readings can be found here
The news often causes me great anxiety.  Drought, cyclones, weather extremes and war; racial inequity, homophobia and religious radicalism.  I find myself feeling helpless in the midst of what all too often feels like a world mired in abuses and horrors.  And, from the midst of this feeling of helplessness, I considered the readings this week.  And in my consideration of promise and life and death and love and in the context of St. Patrick’s day...I remembered the opening pages of “A Swiftly Tilting Planet”.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle, sets the stage on an earth, our earth, in which our abuses of the world and its resources have reached a head and the despot of a small nation is set to destroy all of creation through the use of nuclear force.   In the opening chapter, Scientist and advisor to the president of the United States, Mr. Murry tells his children that
“The world has been abnormal for so long that we've forgotten what it's like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” 
And, thus the youngest of the Murry children, Charles Wallace engages with the past to transform the present--an engagement in which he is charged with transforming a broken heart through the offering of peace and reason (and, of course, he does so in partnership with a cranky IS fiction).  
And, as I consider this sweeping fictional narrative of salvation through faith in the ability of humanity to be transformed through love--through engaging with our potential for peace and reason in our own hearts--I am struck at our own narratives of God’s offer of salvation through an invitation to transformation.   
An invitation to allow ourselves to be drawn into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus--as Jesus says in the Gospel of John. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”.  
What does it mean to be drawn to Christ?  
Children’s book author Lisa Tawn Bergren, describes being drawn to Christ as being akin to a river’s travel to the ocean.  The river’s journey will end, but in ending it becomes part of something larger than itself.   So, yes, the river loses its life but gains the greater in its ending.  And, as I consider this metaphor, I find myself drawn into an imagining of the Lenten invitation to participate in the journey with Christ--and in that participation to to be drawn beyond ourselves and into the body of Christ.  Lent becomes an invitation to lose our lives and participate in the divine life that is unending.  
And, so as Jesus speaks of his impending death in this passage from John we too consider our own ends.  And, as we turn our eyes to the cross, we are also reminded that there is a strength and a hope beyond the cross--the story will not and does not end in the Lenten wilderness or the execution upon the Hill of the Skull.  The story, in fact, does not end...and in the simple phrase Jesus uses, “lifted up”, is encapsulated not just the crucifixion and literal lifting of his body, but also his resurrection, his lifting up from the grave, and his ascension to the right hand of God.
In crucifixion emerges our hope.  And, in the poignant use of a phrase that invokes death, life and unending companionship with God, I find an invitation to hope.  
Because Christ has been lifted up, so too will we be lifted...death will not end our stories.  
The Revised Common Lectionary, in partnering this passage from the Gospel of John with the passage from the prophet Jeremiah, draws a connection between the covenant made between God and God’s people Israel and the new covenant in Christ.  Covenants in which a people beloved by God are promised the gift of boundless love and forgiveness.  Covenants in which the God who has claimed us, promises love no matter what. 
“I will write it on their hearts.” God has transformed the human heart.  Consider, the truth, that God has transformed your heart by inscribing within it a promise of love and forgiveness.
This, this is the amazement of a covenant written on our hearts...a covenant that promises love no matter where or how far we may stray.  A promise structured into our very selves and very beings.  
As we enter into the final days of our Lenten observance I invite you to consider the love that has been written on your hearts.  To consider what it means to bind the love of God to ourselves and offer it to others.  To engage with the covenant, with the promises we have made to God and each other--the offering of a place where true joys are to be found.   
And so, turning again to the impending destruction of all that is and the crisis faced by the protagonists of “A Swiftly Tilting Planet”, we are reminded of that which lies within the human heart--the capacity to embrace the peace and reason imbued in us by the creator who loves us. 
And not only embrace this capacity but, claim it.  In Madeleine L’Engles’s novel, as creation itself is troubled, a prophetess speaks.  The words of the prophetess are ancient ones and claim the power we have to make peace manifest and claiming our responsibility to bear the living Christ into the world.  They are words that give me hope, and fill me with a sense of the light that each of us can offer in the presence of what too often feels to be overwhelming darkness.   
The invocation, used by L’Engle in framing her book, is one with which many of us are familiar--even if we haven’t made a habit of reading young adult science fiction novels.  L’Engle uses the text referred to as Patrick’s Rune.  A text we have inherited as “The Breastplate of St. Patrick”.  And, it is said that Patrick sang this hymn when an ambush was set for him by King Loeguire (Leary).   In the words of this hymn, what is claimed is the love of God, and what is manifested is the love of God, and what is invoked is our unity and our vision for a new creation in which our brokenness is bound up by the very love of God which has created us. 
This prayer, this invocation, this hymn attributed to the Saint, has been a prayer used by travelers and pilgrims as a prayer bidding God’s protection from the perils of travel.  As we continue our our own journey in the Lenten wilderness--facing temptation knowing that the pain of the cross is to come, I think it is fitting to sing together these words attributed to Patrick.  I invite you to turn to hymn #370 from our own hymnal--”I bind unto myself today”.  We will sing together...verses 1-3 and verse 5.
I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,
by power of faith, Christ's Incarnation;
his baptism in Jordan river;
his death on cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spic├Ęd tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet "Well done" in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors' faith, apostles' word,
the patriarchs' prayers, the prophets' scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven
the glorious sun's life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken, to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.

Words: attributed to St. Patrick (372-466);
trans. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), 1889Music: St. Patrick's Breastplate and Gartan (verse 6)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Count the Stars, They Stay Still

Lent 3B, 2015
St. Clement’s Episcopal Church
Readings can be found here

442; 147; 341.

These are the numbers--members, averages Sunday attendance, communicants in good standing.  Each year, every Episcopal Church is asked to fill out what we call the parochial report.  The national church states that “The Parochial Report established by our Constitution and Canons is a tool for the collection of data that is intended to assist the Church in planning for mission.”

More numbers...

24; 13.

How many baptized, how many buried, how many transferred?  How many left?  What’s the total?  

And, so we count.  


How many communicants in good standing.

Taking communion here three times a year makes one a communicant in good standing.  

Enter your user ID number here, and then your personalized pin.  

A parish I served as a youth worker in Ohio, St. Luke’s, has a vibrant ministry with its neighborhood and the children in it.  Dozens of children show up each week for a hot meal, worship, open gym.  They are invited to participate in diocesan youth events, they are welcomed with open arms on Sundays.

Sometimes they bring their grown-ups.  More often they don’t.  

The youth outreach worker described the hilarity of trying to fill out the parochial report.  Do hundreds of children hungry for a meal and kindness count?  How many were there?  It would be easier to count the stars--the stars at least stay still in the night.  Baptism?  Who knows, unlikely but possible.  All they know are that children are hungry for food, and love and prayer.  “Does swimming count?” we quip.

And, then a sigh.  Quantifying the work of God in our midst, measuring the Spirit and summing up the body of the Son in our midst.   It’s the new math.  

40. 3.

40 days in the desert, tempted by the forces of evil.  40 days of rain to destroy that which was broken. 3 hours on the cross.  3 days until he rose again.  

Are you with me?  Come with me to the temple market.  Count the change, weigh the incense, trade for the unblemished, exchange the profane for the holy.  Bypass the bleating sheep and enter the inner sanctum.  

Hear the roar of anger, the crash of cages and the fluttering of the doves.  Such foolishness.  Such wisdom.  Walls that will fall, bodies that will be destroyed--walls which will stay crumbled as we watch the body rise.  

The crack of the whip, the temple will fall.  But, he will not and his disciples will remember what he said.  We will remember--”Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Destroy this temple?  

For the author of the Gospel of John, sin is the fundamental state of not being in relationship with God--and for the embodied God, the temple marketplace becomes a barrier to relationship.  

Jesus’ wasn’t just “cleansing” the temple—his actions attacked two essential services.  You NEEDED unblemished animals for sacrifice and the Roman coinage with images of Caesar couldn’t be offered in the temple because those coins represented worship of Caesar and not God.  So, if you were going to worship in the Temple and live out the precepts of your faith you NEEDED these services—adherents couldn’t participate in worship without these services.  

So to attack these essential components of worship, is to attack the political and religious structure as a whole.  This is not just some sort of embarrassing and forgettable temper tantrum in a public place--this is the upending of an entire system--the old sacrificial system.  The marketplace is no longer needed when the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is amongst us.  

In short, the presence of Christ is in the midst of the community of Christ.  The only offering to be made is of ourselves, the only one to follow is the one walking to Golgatha, the only way to worship is with our very being.  Seeking and serving Christ in all persons... 

Christ in all persons, the culmination of the journey out of Egypt.  Christ in all persons, the summation of incarnation.  Christ in all persons and the presence of God is broken loose and set free in our midst.  

Thus, Jesus was not just cleansing—he was attacking the entire Temple system of worship.  Now Jesus was not the only one opposed to centralized worship in the Temple in Jerusalem…the prophet Isaiah writes a great deal about turning away from ritualized Temple worship and towards a deeper personal piety.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless—these were the rituals that mattered…not worship in a temple whose construction had required the blood and sweat of the poorest.  This is about justice—God’s kind of justice.  A justice in which mercy and love are the measure.  Our own systems of justice—at their very best—are our best attempts as humans to enact God’s love in the world we live in.   

It’s been 50 years since the March in Selma.  51 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of  1964.  55 years since the Rondo neighborhood was shattered by the construction of interstate 94.  And in 2014, the difference between the median household income of white Americans and black Americans is 22801.  18.2 percent of children in Minnesota live in poverty.  2 dollars and 44 cents--the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage in Ramsey County.  

There are tables that need overturning.  Worlds and systems that need transformation.  

And, it is our task, our sacred duty to transform the world. Have we not covenanted to seek and serve Christ in all persons, love our neighbors as ourselves, honor the dignity of every human being, and resist the forces of evil.

Loving and resisting, transforming and serving.  

How do we measure love?  How do we weigh transformation?  How do we value service?

10. 1,826,449. 3,278. 6. 7.

10 commandments.  1,826,449 trees planted in Haiti since 1984.  3,278 meals served a day in Ramsey County through the food shelves.  6 days to labor and a seventh for all to rest.

Is this how steadfast love is to be shown to the thousandth generation? 

Will we love?  Will we honor the commandments?  Will we keep the apostles’ teachings?

What numbers will we keep?  What God will we worship?  

Shall we count the times we continued the apostles’ teaching and how often we gathered to pray together?  

How about every time we resisted evil?  

How often we have repented and forgiven each other?

How many times did each of us proclaim the Gospel?  

How often did we love our neighbor as ourselves?  

How many hours did we spend striving for justice and peace and dignity for every human being?  

By what numbers will we be known?  

(I invite you to check out   for an engaging essay on the idea of a "New Parochial Report")