Sunday, December 23, 2012

Repeat the Sounding Joy

“For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”

                I tried really hard to figure out a way to write this sermon without recalling the recent tragedy in Connecticut, calling it a tragedy even seems like an understatement.  I tried to convince myself that people are tired of talking about it, tired of thinking about it, tired of hearing about it.  I know I am.  The events certainly stir up a lot of uncomfortable feelings.  
I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be for those in Newtown; just seeing the images on TV have been overwhelming for me.  Jamie and I had to stop watching the news earlier this week as we were consumed by the heartbreak happening in Newtown and right here in Alabama. You don’t have to look very hard to see the amount of pain and suffering in the world.
To make matters worse, some of the responses on social media and other news outlets are saddening and even maddening.  Most notably, the response that says acts of evil are somehow a part of God’s design and/or judgment.  I won’t get into that this morning except to say that this kind of theology is not only unhelpful but also dangerous. 
There is a message in the midst of all this that cannot be talked about enough.  As Glenda mentioned to the Vestry on Monday, the message of Jesus is more important now than perhaps ever before.  Jesus’ message is one of salvation from the destructive ways of this world, and as scripture says this message of salvation is met with a leap for joy.
Last Sunday, the children’s choir offered us the joy of salvation in their annual Advent Lessons and Carols as they sang songs about the peace and justice of God.  I can’t think of a more appropriate way for the message of salvation to have been preached on that day than for children to sing the words of the Gospel. 
The sound of their innocent, beautiful, fragile little voices and the words of salvation that they proclaimed so joyfully saved me from total despair that morning.  They reminded me that the hope of God still sings in the hearts of children everywhere, even when the voices of some were tragically silenced.
After singing the stunning offertory anthem Gentle Rain, the children’s choir approached the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion.  When they stretched out their little hands with smiling faces, I found myself grieving again for the children in Connecticut, but I also found myself giving thanks for our children.  It was hard not to imagine the children from Sandy Hook standing right next to them with their arms outstretched to receive the gift of Jesus. 
But as I thought about it, those children were gathered around the Lord’s Table with our children and they too sang songs of the peace and justice of God.  The communion of saints was seen even more clearly around the Lord’s Table that morning. 
This is the message of salvation made available through the body and blood of Christ that was shed for us, shed for the children who were killed in Newtown, shed for the victims of war, shed for normal folk like you and me, shed for the thieves on the cross, and even shed for the enemy.  As the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, boldly proclaims, the message of salvation is especially for to the lowly, the forgotten, the outcast, and the abandoned.     
Last Saturday, children of incarcerated parents filled the Great Hall with laughter for the Angel Tree Party.  They made cookies.  They sang Christmas carols.  They played with bouncy balls for hours.  They sat in Santa’s lap and got their pictures taken.  They reminded me that I am a child too. 
They sat right here in the Nave and listened to the Christmas story, the story of the promise of salvation, a story that some heard for the very first time.  Perhaps for the first time, some also heard that they have a heavenly parent, a heavenly Father, who through the gift of Jesus, will be with them no matter what, even when all hope seems lost. 
The message of the salvation available in Jesus is a message that our children are hungry to hear.  This is a message that we are all hungry to hear.  Now that Jamie and I are expecting our first child, it is hard not to imagine everyone as a little child. 
Scripture says that when Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth with the good news of Jesus, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.  The gift of Jesus certainly gives us all reason to leap for joy like little children in a mother’s womb where there is only life and promise ahead. 
In Jesus, God is fulfilling His promise to be with us always and giving us reason to hope again.  In Jesus, God is promising to be with us when we hurt, when we die, when we laugh, and when we sing.  Nothing is so strong that it will break this promise of eternal joy, a joy that echoes from generation to generation through the Song of Mary, through songs of praise and thanks, through the songs of our children.
Today, our Gospel recalls the story of two who first sang about the message of God our Savoir.  On this 4th Sunday in Advent, we get to rejoice with Mary and Elizabeth, two humble expecting mothers.  The scene of two women preparing to give birth hits especially close to home this year.  Like Elizabeth, my wife Jamie is in her sixth month of pregnancy and the baby kicks all the time.  One of our close friends is in her third month of pregnancy. 
So on some level, I can imagine the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary and all their singing.  While Jamie and her friend don’t sing to each other, they glow with excitement and anticipation. 
In addition to the joy and wonder of this time, I also know very well the anxiety and fear that goes along with expecting a child. Will I be a good parent?  Will our baby be healthy?  What happens if something bad happens?  How can I keep her safe?  What if I can’t protect her?  What then?
As much as I hate to say it, I know there is no amount of preparation that can fully make me ready to be a father, for the good times and for the bad times.  It doesn’t matter how much I try to prevent bad things from happening, odds are my daughter will experience the pains and hurts of this world.  Despite Mary and Elizabeth’s best efforts to protect their boys, both of their sons met a tragic end.
I don’t like having to think about these things.  Even more so, I don’t like that I have to let the possibility of danger and hurt dictate how I prepare to bring up my daughter.
But there is good news.  There is the good news of Jesus that I can prepare my daughter to hear.  Instead of letting destruction and evil define how I bring up my child, I can look to Christ as the one who defines who my daughter is and who my daughter will become. 
My daughter’s life doesn’t have to be defined by the fear of the unthinkable happening.  Instead, her life can be defined by the good news of Jesus.  Her life can be defined by songs of God’s peace and justice that sing louder than the pain of tragedy.  She is promised fullness of life by her heavenly Father even when I cannot or fail to shield her from the perils of this world.  She is promised a place at the Lord’s Table where all are recognized as God’s beloved, as God’s children forever.
Brothers and sisters, as we look forward to Christmas, we have reason to leap for joy, a child is to be born.  All that is terribly wrong and heartbreaking about this world is overpowered by the light of this good news. A child is to be born and this child will reorient our lives to see the goodness and hope that God is dying for us to hold onto, dying for us to proclaim.
  Like Mary and Elizabeth, we too have a song to sing, a song of hope, a song of peace, a song of justice, a song of salvation.  As we sing in one of our Christmas hymns, go forth and Repeat, Repeat the Sounding Joy.  Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

sighs too deep for words: our Father, who art in heaven...

I am deeply saddened, outraged, grieved, and overwhelmed by the shootings in Connecticut this morning.  I've tried to make sense out of this act of this senseless violence.  I've prayed.  I've remembered books, good books, that deal with problem of evil and the justice of God.  I've prayed again.  I've had conversations with friends about gun control and the nature of God's sovereignty.  I've seen people get into arguments on social media over the best way to stop to this violence (will the insanity ever stop?).  I have also seen thoughts and prayers of compassion and heartbreak.  This kind of tragedy brings out the best and worst in us all, including me (Lord have mercy). 

It is really hard to know what to say.  I know God is call me to say something, to say something about the violence and suffering in the world.  God, I really do not know what to say!  Help me.  What can be said?

Again, I am reminded one of my favorite passages in scripture found in Romans 8.  "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains...Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."
It seems especially appropriate that at this time that we remember the words our Lord Christ taught us to say...

 Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name;
   thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
   on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
   as we forgive those who trepass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
   but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power,
   and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

God help us to live in your Kingdom today where guns and violence are powerless and where evil and hate are replaced by your compassion and goodness. 


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In whom can I trust?

Proper 27, Year B, 2012, All Saints’

Someone recently gave some me some advice on how to avoid embarrassment when you don’t have any money to put in the offertory plate.  He said, “If you don’t have anything, then just thump the bottom of the plate with your finger and people will think you gave something.”  My initial reaction was, “Well that’s kind of silly, that will just draw more attention to the problem!”  It’s been a while since anybody said, “Excuse me while I dig this hunk of gold out of my wallet.”
However silly this advice sounds today, this kind of advice would have come in handy during Jesus’ day.  Today’s lesson tells of a time when Jesus and his disciples sat around and watched people come forward to make their offering at the treasury.  Apparently, it was easy to discern how much money was put in the plate based on the sound of the clank; the louder the clank the more substantial the gift.
But Jesus wasn’t impressed with the loud clanks.  He wasn’t impressed by the ones who wore the finest clothes and who were greeted with respect.  Instead, Jesus noticed the poor widow who put all she had in the plate, and she only had two small coins.  She had a couple of pennies to her name, but she gave 100%.  You can hold onto your wallets, this won’t be your traditional stewardship sermon.
While the scribes gave much more money than this widow, Jesus said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she gave out of her poverty.” Jesus notes that giving out of abundance is not worth nearly as much as giving out of poverty.
He seems to be saying that a true measure of a gift is given when one gives over all that they are and all that they have. As the Eucharistic Prayer says, at the Lord’s Table we are asked to present to God ourselves, our souls, and our bodies-not just 10% but 100%.   In Jesus’ eyes, true value is not found in how much money one has but in how much one gives of themself.  
Jesus is telling us of a Gospel truth that goes beyond the traditional tithing model.  Jesus is teaching about a spiritual practice that is much more radical than giving 10% of our income to the church.  This passage speaks to the true value of what it means to put all of our trust in God. 
For starters, learning how to trust in anything or anybody is not easy.  At some point in our life we have all been disappointed by someone we love and trust.  Or maybe the church or some other organization has let you down.  Maybe you have even experienced what it is like to feel rejected by God.
I think we all know what it feels like to be let down.  These feelings of disappointment are very painful and have the power to linger for a long time.  In some cases, these feelings prevent us from ever really trusting again.  They might even prevent us from ever giving of ourselves to anything again.
I look at the widow in the story today as the ultimate example of someone who has every reason not to trust again.  Her husband is dead.  The people who were charged with taking care of her have either abandoned her or died.  The people who are supposed to be taking care of her are more concerned with their long flowing robes and seats of honor.  And these same people watch idly by while she puts into the treasury all that she has.  Nobody bothers to tell her that she doesn’t have to give away all that she has.
This whole scene is made even more ridiculous if you think about the fact that Jesus just visited this Temple and turned it upside down for being corrupt.  I wonder if she knew that the Temple leaders were mishandling the money.  Even if she didn’t, the passage suggests that this widow was taken advantage of.  “The scribes devour widows’ houses.”  In other words, they took advantage of the widows’ generosity.   But for whatever reason the widow trusted that giving her money in this way was what God was calling her to do. 
Maybe she believed that giving away these last two coins would finally free her from all her trust issues.  Or maybe she trusted that God could work through any circumstance and system, no matter how bleak and uncertain the situation.  Or maybe this was simply a case of her following the Temple tax code.  Whatever the case, she believed that giving over these two coins was her only option.  Even at the end of her rope, this poor widow trusted down to her last penny that with God much more is possible.
Perhaps you are more like the widow than most.  Perhaps you have lost many of these things.  What has sustained you?  What calls you back to church each Sunday?  How has God noticed you in your loss? 
I wonder how I might respond if I were in her situation.  What would happen if all the things I trusted would take care of me were taken away?  My house, my job, my car, my savings account, my pension plan?  Even worse, what would happen if all the people in my life that I trusted where gone?  What then?  What would keep hope alive?  How could I trust again?
At first glance, the lesson does not seem to radiate hope for those of us stuck with these seemingly impossible questions.  There is no evidence that Jesus goes into the treasury and gives this widow her money back.  Like in other passages, Jesus does not say that this woman will find her true reward in heaven.  It does not appear that the scribes repent of their evil ways, have a change of heart, and take care of this widow.  What glimmer of hope is God offering? 
I learned some time ago that when a Gospel lesson fails to make a whole lot of sense or seems to be devoid of hope, that I should ask myself a question.  How does this lesson make sense in light of the cross and the empty tomb?  In other words, how does Jesus’ death and resurrection reveal hope in this passage?
First of all, we can trust that God notices us in our suffering.  Like the widow, Jesus was abandoned by just about everyone in his life and given over to death.  Jesus had every reason to feel rejected and despised, every reason to not trust the world.  When nobody else seems to notice us in our loss, we have a Savoir who does because he gave all of himself for us.  He lost himself for our sake.
In addition, Jesus is calling us to life through death.  That means we have to put to death the illusion that these temporal things (our houses, our savings accounts, even our families) will sustain us and take care of us forever.  None of these things, no matter how good, will  last.  By giving these things a proper burial so to say, we can let go of them as our primary source for hope and salvation.  In letting go of these things, in the same way the widow let go of her two pennies, we can put our whole life and trust in the hand of God.
We can put our trust in God in this way because through Jesus’ resurrection God is making all things new, all things last, all things possible including even victory over death.  The resurrection of Christ tells us that dying to our possessions and the ways of the world is where life begins.  Dying to our possessions and all of our stuff will open us up to true abundance, not the abundance of things that end up just weighing us down but to the abundance of everlasting hope.
God is trying to show you that even when you think all hope is lost, there will always be hope through God in Christ.  Even when you think there is nothing left to give, God is saying, “just give me you, all of your frustrations and failures, all of your broken dreams and disappointments, and I will give you a life worth living.”
  In my experience, when I thought the world was taking away from me all the things I thought I needed, God gave me what I really needed.  God gave me a relationship with Christ.  God gave me a church community that loved me and noticed me when I was hurting.  God gave me work to do in his kingdom.  I came to realize that God is in control of my true health and salvation. 
All of this boils down to letting God be in charge of what you have or even of what you don’t have.  When you let God be in charge by giving to Him all that you are, you set yourself on a wonderful and sacred journey where hope and life abounds even when all else seems lost.  Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The End of the World

The end times are not on my mind because I am anxious about the Mayan calendar running out sometime next month.  I am tuned into this theme because our lectionary text for Sunday focuses on Mark's "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13:1-8).  In case you are still worried, this text or a version of this text appears every year at this time so don't automatically assume this is a story of things to come.  Our Men's Bible Study asked an important question regarding this lesson.  "If this lesson isn't meant to be used to predict the end of the world, then what does Jesus hope we learn?"

For starters, we have to understand that Mark was written during the Jewish-Roman war (around 65-70 AD, before or after the destruction of the Temple).  Therefore, the first audience of this text might have assumed the world was coming to an end due to war and political unrest.  But what else is new?  Political unrest and war are almost as certain as death and taxes!  Given the state of affairs, this question about end times was on everyone's mind. 

However, Jesus issues a warning to the disciples not to focus to much on these signs.  He further claims that people who are too focused on predicting the end times are most likely false prophets.  Jesus goes on to say that when these signs do appear, we should not be alarmed.  Jesus closes his speak by saying, "This is but the beginning of the brithpangs."

I don't know what birthpangs feel like and will never know (my wife will very shortly-please keep her and Baby Alvey in prayer!).  However, I imagine that it must feel like the end of the world.  There must be the thought of, how can this possibly end well!  In much the same way, political unrest, natural disaster, persecution must feel like the end of the world for all who experience such things and on an individual level such things do mean the end of life in this world.

By using the imagery of birthpangs, Jesus is giving us a clue of things to come.  In most cases, birthpangs lead to new life and joy.  The imagery of birthpangs is an image of hope for the life to come.

If you think about it too hard, you have to wonder, what did Jesus' death and resurrection really change?  We still see political unrest.  We still see natural disasters.  We still see persecution.  So what did Jesus really come to do?  What hope is there of things to come?

Jesus came to reveal the future hope for things to come in the present.  Jesus' resurrection from the grave shows us that with God all things are possible even victory over death.  Jesus did something in this world that was previously thought to have been impossible.  He rose from the dead.

Therefore, the imagery of birthpangs and then ultimately the reality of Christ's victory over death reveal God's final hope for his creation.  God is telling us that when all else seems to be destroyed (temples, cities, people, etc.) there is still reason to hope now and forever because Jesus has achieved the final victory already.

The gift of Jesus gives us reason to continue onward, reason to never give up because the best is still yet to come.  Jesus is teaching us to always be alert and ready for the not yet that is our final hope.  However, we must stay present to the moment and witness to the future hope of things to come today, no matter how dark the scene may seem.




Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What Cloaks Do You Need to Throw Off?

Proper 25, Year B, 2012, All Saints’

                You probably don’t know this about me but in 1994 I suffered a career ending football injury while playing for the San Francisco 49ers pee-wee football team.  I remember that fall quite well.  I remember thinking practice was a waste of time.  My idea of fun had nothing to do with doing drills over and over again.  But I loved game day.  I loved the feeling of actually getting to do what I had prepared to do all week.  I loved seeing all the fans cheering on the sidelines.    
But one fall afternoon, I went after a loose ball and during the scramble I broke my elbow.  After that, I didn’t like game day that much either so I decided to retire/quit.  Even then, I remember practice being more painful than a broken elbow.    
                Over the last several weeks in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been holding practice for his disciples.  Jesus has been coaching them up on what it means to be a follower of Christ.  He has been teaching them that in God’s kingdom greatness is achieved when one lays down their life for another, greatness is found through selfless service to others.
It doesn’t seem like the disciples like practice either because they keep on wanting to talk about the big game.  They can’t wait to run through the Jerusalem tunnel to the sound of thousands of screaming fans.  The disciples can hardly contain themselves and are anxious to see Jesus sack the Roman authorities.    (bear with me; I’ve been known to take a metaphor too far). 
                Jesus tries to warn his followers that the big game won’t be quite like what they envision.  He knows that the disciples will never execute his game plan unless they see everything at game speed, unless they see the ministry of Christ lived out through his death and resurrection, unless they see that with God all things really are possible and that means with God victory over suffering and death is even possible.
                On the way to the big game, Jesus and his disciples are stopped by a blind man named Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus shouts, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  However, the disciples try to hush the man and tell him to keep quiet.  In the disciples’ defense, on the first day of discipleship camp Jesus tells Peter not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.  So when the disciples hear Bartimaeus yelling, “Jesus, Son of David! (Son of David is the equivalent of saying Messiah), they tell him to be quiet too.
                Jesus doesn’t rebuke this blind man, this outsider, in the same way he rebukes Peter several chapters ago for saying Messiah.  Instead Jesus stands still and says, “Call him here.”  It is interesting to note how differently Jesus treats his disciples, the insiders, over and against new believers, the outsiders.  It seems that Jesus is reminding the disciples again of how dangerous it is to put stumbling blocks in the way of new believers. 
                Jesus doesn’t care that this man’s theology is off.  Jesus doesn’t care that this man doesn’t fully understand that for Jesus, Messiah also means suffering servant.  Bartimaeus comes before Jesus like a little child, completely helpless and vulnerable in front of everybody.  Jesus cares because Bartimaeus trusts that only God can heal him. 
                After Bartimaeus is brought to Jesus, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  This is the same question that Jesus asked James and John last week.  However, Bartimaeus gives a different type of answer.  While James and John’s answer seeks personal ambition (they want to sit at Jesus left and right hand in glory), Bartimaeus’ answer seeks healing.  He just wants to see again.  Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 
                At first glance, it appears that Jesus is taking a break from teaching about discipleship.  It seems that Jesus is back to doing what he is best known for—his deeds of power and miracles.  However, Jesus is teaching his disciples a lesson at the same time.  This healing is meant to teach his followers the connection between healing and discipleship.
It is as if Jesus is telling the disciples that in order to truly follow him they must be healed from their own spiritual blindness, from their inability to see the needs of others.  The disciples are blind to what it means to be true followers.  Jesus teaches them that discipleship has nothing to do with climbing the company ladder.  Discipleship isn’t the magic ticket for eternal life.  Discipleship isn’t about personal gain.  In order to be a disciple, one must be healed from their inability to see past one’s own desires and find peace in God’s way through Christ, a way of humility and service.  I was reminded of this great Gospel paradox on Monday by an unsuspecting person.  
On Monday night, I was stopped in the hallway by Rosemary, one of our overnight BHN guests.   Birmingham Hospitality Network (BHN) is supported by a network of churches in the community that supports families who are homeless and need help getting back on their feet.  All Saints’ is blessed to be a part of such a wonderful ministry and it is a blessing to see so many in the congregation who are passionate about this good work. 
Rosemary stopped me and said, “I need to ask you something, it is important.  She then asked me for my business card.”  At this point I started getting a little nervous.  What would she possibly ask me for?  I wasn’t sure there was much I could do.  I didn’t want to disappoint her.  I had already disappointed enough people that day.   
                I said, “What can I do?”  She replied, “I want you to pray for me.”  I let out a little sigh of relief and said, “Absolutely, I’ll keep you in my prayers Rosemary.”  I asked her about her prayer life and she went on to tell me all the things that have been in her prayers lately.  She said she was grateful for All Saints’ and  for BHN and for all the wonderful people who have loved her and supported her during this difficult time. 
She also talked about another prayer that had been on her mind, and quite frankly I was surprised at what she said next.  I expected her to say something like, “I also pray that God will give me a nice home and a good job.”  But Rosemary said something else, something that revealed a lot about her faith.  She said that she had prayed for a long time for God to give her a ministry where she can love people in the same way that she has been loved.  I thought, “Wow! What a wonderful prayer!” 
I am reminded of a passage from Matthew’s Gospel that says, “Do not worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’...indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Rosemary concluded by saying, “My prayer has been answered.  God gave me BHN.  God healed me.  After I go through the program, I am going to serve.” 
Rosemary’s prayer had nothing to do with asking God for special treatment or personal gain or recognition.  Instead her prayer was a prayer of thanksgiving; for all that she does have, for BHN, for people who love her and support her, and for God’s goodness.  Her prayer also echoed the St. Francis prayer, “grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love.”  Rosemary found what she needed through a prayer that was more concerned with the needs of others.
If we want to take discipleship seriously, we need to be healed from our blindness.  We must be healed from the illusion that being a Christian is the path to personal gain and recognition.  Perhaps, more importantly to those of you sitting in the pews this morning, Jesus is calling us to see that healing comes from God alone and not from the things of this world.  Better jobs, bigger houses, and sorry to say it, caffeine will not heal us; only Christ can truly heal and only Christ can show us a life of true peace.  The passage for this morning states that Bartimaeus knows the truth that healing comes from Christ alone.
When Bartimaeus sees Jesus, he throws off his cloak.  He throws off the one thing in this world that provided him with comfort and security.  He throws off his cloak and trusts that Jesus will give him something much better, something more permanent.  He has faith that Jesus is the only one who can save him from his blindness.  After he is healed, Bartimaeus does not go back to get his cloak.  Instead he immediately follows Jesus on the way.
Bartimaeus exhibits the type of faith that Jesus hopes for his followers.  A faith that says, “I need to be healed from my blindness, my inability to see the needs of others, so that I can truly follow the way of the cross, the way of humility and service.”  In your own prayers concerning discipleship, I invite you to ask, “What do I need Jesus to do for me?”  “What kind of blindness do I need to be healed from?” “What cloaks do I need to throw off so that I can put my whole trust in the way of God?”  Amen.