Monday, August 31, 2015

What is Religion Good for Anyway?

Proper 17, Year B, 2015

As a college student in Tuscaloosa, I regularly attended Canterbury Episcopal Chapel.  The worship service at Canterbury Chapel was fairly traditional.  They used Rite II prayers, played hymns to the sound of an organ, they used the right kind of wine for communion—Tawney Port.  You know they did all the things good Episcopalians are used to.
However, they did something in particular that almost made me fly out my pew one Sunday.  I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went directly to the priest to make my complaint.  I told him, “Why are we using the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer and not the real Lord's Prayer?!" You know the one Jesus himself said, the one that says, “Our father in heaven.”  Our father can’t just be in heaven—he arts in heaven—or something like that!  I needed my thees and thous to pray! 
  Ken Fields, the chaplain at the time, sort of chuckled and told me that he’d get right on it.  I didn’t believe him (he was a priest after all) so I returned the following Sunday, sat in the front pew, and stared him down when it came time for the prayer.  And you know what?  We said the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer!  I was well on my well to becoming a liturgical snob—Don King can attest to this.  I am also proud to note that Canterbury Chapel still recites the traditional form to this day.
I wonder what your little quirk is when it comes to the liturgy.  What in the liturgy distracts you from worshiping God?  I know I am opening the flood gates here.  While I want to know, I can’t promise I’ll do what Ken Fields did and change things up. 
Maybe the more important question is why do these little quirks get in the way of your encounter with God?  You might ask, “Why am I hanging on to these traditions so tightly?”  Maybe more importantly, “What can God teach me through my little liturgical quirk?” 

(Resurrection Angel Mosaic at St. Paul's)

            The religious traditions that the church has created over the years, in all their particularities, do have the power to move us to encounter God’s spiritual reality—a reality most of us can’t get in touch with without religion.  God knows that we need religion to stay in touch with him so God calls us to worship him in beauty and in truth—some use contemporary music with guitars, others like more traditional music with organ, some like praise hour, others prefer a more quiet and meditative style.
The traditions regarding worship that I learned to embrace over the years are indeed vehicles to encounter God and God’s spiritual reality; they do allow my heart, mind, and soul to grow into a deeper knowledge and love of God.  The use of the traditional Lord’s Prayer was how I prayed to God.  At that time, any other version of the Lord’s Prayer created a distraction in the way I worshiped. 
The structure and tradition that was found in worship created and allowed for a sacred place in the midst of the chaotic life of a college student.  However, I soon began to realize that I was worshiping our liturgy more than I was worshiping our God.  In a way, religion became a means to and end when the human precepts that I held so tightly didn’t draw me closer to the Word of God. 
            All this being said, I believe there is great beauty and grave danger in the way we as humans understand and create religious traditions in the Church.  The beauty is seen in how religion has the power to move us closer to the heart of God, to God’s reality.  The danger is seen when religion is used to push others away from the heart of God.  And God knows, we all know, how often religion has been used to keep people out.  I pray that God delivers us from the same evil.
In today’s lesson we see that the Pharisees and scribes respond to centuries of religious tradition when they ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  The Pharisees and the scribes were not upset at Jesus because his followers ate using dirty hands or because they had bad table manners but because they did not share the same table tradition as according to Jewish tradition.    
            It would be easy to look at today’s lesson and simply conclude that Jesus was right and the Pharisees were wrong.  Jesus was indeed right for responding to the Pharisees question by saying, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  Jesus is indeed noting how their religious traditions are attempting to push others away from an experience with God.  However, when trying to understand this passage, it is important for us Christians to remember why the Jewish people adhered to such strict laws and traditions in the first place. 
During a time when pagan religion was the norm, the Hebrew people needed a way to show others that God had set them apart from other nations.  They needed a way to show the world how their God was different.  In a society that worshiped false idols, they needed a way to preserve their faith in one true God and maintain their identity as children of God.  God wanted his chosen to do this not so that they would hide from the world, rather so they would be inspired to be God’s light in the darkness, so they would lead all nations into the light of God. 
They kept to these traditions because it was their understanding that right worship and obedience to the law led to right relationship with not only God but also their neighbors—even their Samaritan neighbors.  In the same way, we as Episcopalians adhere to a similar ethos in our understanding of God as reflected in our liturgy and worship—fundamentally we as Episcopalians claim that right worship leads to right relationship with not only God but also our neighbors—even those who aren’t religious.  
            Jesus remembers Isaiah and says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  Jesus is warning the Pharisees and all of us who identify ourselves as religious people that we are prone to worship our traditions over the God who calls us to worship.  
Jesus is saying that when your religious traditions call you to judge rather than to love, then you are missing the point.  If your traditions lead you to a place of self-righteousness, then that might be a good time to re-think some things.  
The Pharisees do have one thing right—God is calling his chosen to be different.  God is separating us and marking us as people of God.  God is calling us to offer an alternative way to live in this world—a way that leads to compassion and love and not condemnation and judgment. 
At the heart of our worship is the discovery of a God whose love knows no boundaries.  At the heart of our worship is a God who transforms the unclean hearts of all people—especially us religious people.  At the heart of our religious traditions is a God who calls us to live according to the spirit Jesus, a spirit of humility and service and compassion and not a spirit of pride and self-righteousness because we are in and they are out.    
During my time at All Saints’ in Birmingham I worked closely with someone who was the director of a non-profit.  Her philosophy was simple.  She was fond of saying, “Instead of figuring out how to say no to someone in need, I try to figure out how to say yes to someone in need.” 
And to the people who came for help this was good news because most of these people were used to hearing why they weren’t good enough to get proper medical care, education, psychiatric treatment, and so on.  Even the people who were eventually told no were grateful because at least they had been treated with dignity and respect.
Ultimately, God’s call to set us apart is not a call to create a group of people who are isolated from the world so that they can live in comfort and prosperity.  God isn’t marking his chosen as different so we can hold our chosen status over the heads of the lost and tell them why they aren’t good enough. 
  Instead, God call to worship gives us a vision of who God is and a vision God's dream that says only when those who are isolated from the world, only when those who have been told no again and again, only when the lost sheep are brought into the fold will this world live in harmony.  God calls us to worship because God is trying to figure out a way to say yes to all of us.  And God has figured out a way through the blood of Christ that draws the whole world to himself.   
 Our worship of God will inevitably call us to encounter the unclean no matter who dignified and beautiful our worship is.  First of all, our worship of God Almighty reminds us that we are unclean—our own lies and hypocrisy are exposed when we come before the perfectness of God.  Even those who look like they have it put together on the outside are fighting a hard battle to keep clean on the inside.  But the good news is that Jesus sees past our masks and even sees past those who are eat with defiled hands, and touches our hearts with love.  
God gives us religion not as a tool to exclude people or as a tool for self-justification—i.e. I am a good church goer and they are not.  Rather, religion at its best is a tool to draw us and others into the knowledge and love of God.  And when our hearts know this truth, when we know that God has taken hold of our lost and wandering heart, how can we stop from reaching out to the lost in this world to tell them about the good news of God in Christ? 

Good news that says, God is trying to figure out a way to say yes to all people, news that says no one is too dirty for God, news that says you are loved no matter what anybody says about you—even the religious people—and you know God loves you because God has given you the same name as his Son—beloved child of God.  Amen.          

Monday, August 24, 2015

It ain't easy being a Cubs fan

If you are a sports fan, then you might understand it when I say we are sort of in a sporting purgatory.  There really isn’t much going on in the sporting arena right now.  We are stuck between most of the major seasons.  Football is a few weeks away.  Golf is pretty much over.  Basketball is a winter sport and nobody watches hockey anyway—at least not around these parts.
But there is baseball.  There is ALWAYS baseball, the sport that bleeds into every other major sporting season.  However, during these few weeks of the year, there is only baseball.  That is okay because we are getting closer to the playoffs and games actually matter at this point in the season.  So perhaps like you, I am sort of paying attention to what is going on.      
This baseball season is particularly exciting because the team that I hate to love might actually go to the playoffs this year.  As a son of a mother who is from Chicago, I am hoping that the beloved Cubbies finally break the curse of Billy the goat. 
The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over one-hundred years and when they have had a chance to win, they always blow it and most of the time they blow it in remarkable fashion—even their fans somehow manage to blow it.  It isn’t easy being a Cubs fan.

So I have a confession to make.  I have been sort of a fair weather Cub’s fan.  I’ve pledged my allegiance to several other teams over the years.  When my favorite childhood star, Ken Griffey, Jr., was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, a division rival, I started pulling for the Reds.  When my grandfather’s favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, another division rival, started winning all the time, I started pulling for the Cardinals. 
And when I started attending seminary in the D.C. area, I became a Washington Nationals fan.  I remember going to a Nats/Cubs game and pulled for the Nats instead.  Even though the Nats were just as bad if not worse than the Cubs at the time, at least their inability to win anything significant wouldn’t hurt has bad.  There is a silver lining—I never resorted to pulling for the Yankees!
It exhausts me to be a Cubs fan or even a fan of baseball in general.  In reality, it exhausts me to be a sports fan in general.  Even as exhausting as it is, I can’t get enough sports even though I wish I could live without it.
Anyway, my point is, I feel like the insanity of trying to be a loyal sports fan isn’t all that much different than the insanity of trying to survive in this world.  Left to my own devices, I feel like I am constantly trying to find fulfillment in the next best thing.  When something stops working for me, I try something else and the cycle repeats itself.  And it is exhausting.
We live in a world where so many promise to have the ultimate claim over truth.  If you try this exercise routine, if you try this diet, if you try this prayer method, if you read this book, if you subscribe to this publication, if you take this pill, if you go to this church, then you will find salvation.  But instead of finding salvation, we end up like a fickle sports fan, and exhaust ourselves by jumping all over the map in order to find fulfillment. 
But the reality is, no matter how innovative and helpful these truth claims may be they end up failing us because they are only temporary.  If we don't see that these truth claims are simply vehicles that point to ultimate truth, then we will end up like the dog who looks at the finger and not what the finger is point at.  We will try to find happiness in all the wrong places—even those places that the world deems good.  And because of this C.S. Lewis once said, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”
Consider for a minute all the things that you put your trust in for your livelihood in this world—your house, food, transportation, money, health insurance, friends, family, even life as you know it, and the list goes on.  And out of all those things, can you name one thing that you can absolutely say that you will never lose? 
While I know many of you have lost these things, most of us in this room will probably have these things for the rest of our lives. But as Job learned, any of those things could be taken away in the blink of an eye.  And what then?  How will we respond?
I don’t say these things to try and scare you but rather to get you to thinking about temporary truths vs. everlasting truth.  And if you have been following along in the Gospel according to John over the last few weeks, you have noticed that Jesus has been trying to get his followers to understand the same thing.  Jesus is trying to change their perspective.  Instead of putting trust in a world that is perishing, Jesus is giving his followers a faith in a world that is everlasting.    
In Jesus’ case, he uses the image of bread to help describe the difference between temporary and eternal truth.  Jesus basically tells his followers that you can either use up your energy consuming bread that perishes for the rest of your life or you can eat my flesh which is food for the life of the world and if you eat this food, you will live. 
Yes, Jesus certainly gives them bread that perishes.  He turns a few loaves into enough for 5,000.  And of course, God gives us all those good things we need to have in order to live in this world.  God gives us our shelter and our food and whatever else it takes to survive.  But God also knows that this world is only temporary.  Our fundamentally broken creation that is filled with fundamentally broken people will not last forever.        
So what does God do?  God gives us food that lasts.  God gives us something that will endure even the apocalypse.  For the life of the world, God gives us the Word made Flesh—Jesus Christ.  And through the death and resurrection of the Word made Flesh, God is showing us that his Word is eternal truth—not even death can end the truth of God’s Word.  
God’s truth will outlive any earthly reality and if we eat God’s truth then we will endure any earthly reality as well. Jesus said that even heaven and earth will pass away but God’s Word will never pass away.  Think about that God’s Word will never pass away! 
And what is God Word?  First and foremost, God’s Word is life.  Anytime God speaks life follows.  In the beginning, God said let there be light and there was light.  God’s Word made a way through the Red Sea for the Hebrew People when they were being chased into certain death by Pharaoh’s Army.  God’s Word made a promise to the people in exile that he will write his promise of love not on a tablet of stone but on their hearts.    
And you know what?  God did.  God has written on our hearts forever his promise through the sacrifice of his Son, a sacrifice that calls us to remember who we are and what we represent.  We are beloved sons and daughters of God Almighty, and we have been chosen by God to tell the world about the eternal truth of his life and love. 
We aren’t called to save the world or fix the world or condemn the world.  Instead, we are called to point to the one who has already saved the world.  I am stealing this from someone else but we are called to point to the one who holds the broken pieces of this world together in hands of love. 
Like we remembered last Sunday with Bishop Curry, we are called to point to the one who holds the whole world in his hands.  We can tell the world to stop with the insanity of trying to find truth in all the wrong places and look to the one whose truth is quite literally out of this world!
I know that putting trust in God’s world surpasses human understanding.  And the more God in Christ reveals this world to his followers the more difficult it becomes for his followers to believe.  You might say that Jesus’ fall more in love with his signs and miracles than they do the reality God has created beyond signs and miracles.  And so many walk away and try to find a more convenient truth. 
Jesus knows this and therefore asks Peter, “Are you going to leave me to?”  And to that Peter basically says, “Where else can I go?”  Peter knows that there is no other team worth rooting for other the one Jesus is on.  Even though Peter stumbles around in his faith, he knows that Jesus is the only way to life, he knows that the Word made flesh is the only truth worth following in this world. 
I often like to think of our spiritual journey like that of a toddler who is in the mode of discovery.  Like toddlers, we have a hard time believing that our heavenly Father is right—even though—he is, well, the creator of the universe!
And as a parent of a toddler, I feel like I am constantly trying to teach Mary Katherine to learn not how to fall.  And sometimes this seems impossible—she just doesn’t listen.  So, I find myself asking God for help when it comes to this parenting thing, and I always remember the grace that I have known through my heavenly Father. 
Even more important than teaching us to learn not how to fall, our heavenly Father teaches us how to stand up again after we have fallen.  Through grace, our heavenly Father picks us up and gives us the strength and courage to try again in hopes that we fly the next time!  We have a God who is less concerned about our mistakes and more concerned with how we learn from our failure and live more and more into the eternal reality made known in Christ Jesus.    
And like we talked about in our Summer Conversation on Thursday, we have a God who has created a community of love and grace and compassion where we are allowed to fail and get back up and try again.  Through Christ, God has a community where we can grow in grace and love.  God’s community is not three strikes and you’re out.  Instead, God’s community is everlasting and we know this through the living Word of God. 

Thanks be to God because we all have a whole lot of growing up to do and who better to be nurtured by than a God of grace who holds the whole world in his hands of unending love.  Amen.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What reality are you living for?

What reality are you living for?

            I have read that one of the reasons toddlers are given the name “terrible twos” is because they have a terrible time communicating what they want.  They have developed to the point where they know what they want but they can’t quite articulate what they want in a coherent way. 
Therefore, when these terrible twos don’t get what they want, they resort to theatrics by screaming and lying out on the floor with flaying limps in what amounts to them looking like a fish out of water except, unlike a fish, they manufacture a noise that sends shivers down your spine.  And it is at times like these when I wish I was trained in the art of exorcism!
But Jamie and I are enlightened parents, you see.  We saw first-hand all the other parents out there who had trouble with their toddlers, and we mumbled to each other that we weren’t going to let our child act like that in public.    We read all the books and thought ahead.  We were prepared for the terrible twos.    
One way that we thought we would minimize the impact of the terrible twos was by teaching Mary Katherine sign language.  After all, babies learn to use sign language before they learn to speak so we thought this would give her the ability to communicate more clearly thus reducing her temper tantrums later on down the road. 
Thanks to our good friend Anne who is trained in sign language, Mary Katherine became very good at making signs.  It became apparent very quickly that her favorite word to sign was “more.”  For some time, this did, I believe, minimize the impact of the terrible twos and she did seem to pick up on speech pretty quickly.  However, a part of me wonders if the only thing we really did was give her more ammunition. 
In other words, in addition to signing the word more, she soon began to say the word more.  And in her mind, you had to say the word more every time you signed the world.  Because when we taught her to sign the word more, we taught her to sign more multiple times.  So Mary Katherine sort of turned into a broken record that would not stop saying and signing more until, of course, she got what she wanted.  But unlike a broken record, the volume of her demand only got louder.

(Mary Katherine-age 2)

I believe I have digressed a little bit but the point of the story is to illustrate in a most primitive of ways the human need for more.  We always want more.  And no amount of enlightenment is going to satisfy that hunger.  No amount of training ourselves or others will quite satisfy the need for more and sometimes that training only makes things worse. 
In today’s gospel lesson, we see the consequences of Jesus feeding a group of 5,000 people who have no concept of an eternal reality.  After the people eat and have their fill, they want more.  So they go out looking for Jesus but he is nowhere to be found.  They travel across the sea and find Jesus and his disciples in a place by themselves. 
In response, Jesus says, “you haven’t coming looking for me because you saw the signs but because you ate and had your fill of loaves.”  In other words, the people see this mass feeding as more of a magic trick to satisfy their temporal hunger rather than a sign that points to the eternal truth of God.  They are so focused on material things they cannot open their eyes to see that Jesus is giving them something spiritual. 
This point is emphasized when the crowd refers to the great prophet Moses and how he was able to rain down manna from heaven on demand.  But Jesus gently reminds the crowd that it was God who gave the manna and even then the expiration date on manna is very short. 
Again, Jesus is telling this group that they are looking for satisfaction in things that have a shelf life instead of seeing how the eternal truth of God gives them something that lasts forever.  Jesus is basically asking, “Don’t you want something that lasts?”  “Don’t you want something that keeps you full even when all the material things have run out or let you down?”  “Aren’t you tired of asking for more?”
  This past Wednesday the church calendar recognized sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany.  The story tells of when Jesus visits Martha and Mary in their home.  While Martha is working away in the kitchen getting dinner ready, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and enjoys his company.  Martha is very upset by this and demands that Jesus tell Mary to get in the kitchen and get to work. 
However, Jesus tells Martha that Mary is doing the better work.  Jesus says to Martha, “Mary is doing the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  This is kind of shocking isn’t it?  What do you mean Mary is doing the better work?  Martha is the one working hard in the kitchen while Mary just sort of lounges around in the den.  Mary is the lazy one, not Martha!  Again, Jesus is speaking to an eternal truth while Martha is tending to things temporal. 
As human beings, it is easy to tend to things temporal because that is the reality we are faced with most of the time.  We wake up and the moment our feet hit the floor it is do, do, do.  Get breakfast ready, get the kids ready, get yourself ready.  Go to work, run errands, pay the bills.  Wait on the cable guy, the electrician, the plumber.  Get dinner ready, take a run, walk the dog, pay more bills.  Finally, go to sleep.  And then, we wake up and do it all over again…Will we ever get a break?
No wonder we have such a hard time with the concept that God is giving us a world that has nothing to do with what we have done and everything to do with what Christ has already done.  Because so much of our daily lives are spent on the go or on the run, because much of our lives are spent securing our physical shelter, food, safety, and comfort, we often forget to remember where true life and health and salvation come from. 
And when we forget to stop and remember God’s spiritual reality then we often try to satisfy our spiritual hunger with material things and the result is devastating.  Like the crowd does in today’s lesson, we end up asking questions like, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  When we forget to stop and consider what God has already done in Christ, we forget that our number one job is to follow the one who has already completed the reality we are all hungry to know.   
 Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Really?  It is that easy?  All we have to do is believe?  In my experience, believing is harder than doing the work.   After all, Jesus is calling us to see something pretty radical and ultimately beautiful.  Jesus is calling us to see a world where no one is hungry.  Jesus is calling us to see a world where the dignity of every human being is valued and essential.  Jesus is calling us to see a world where scarcity is not a part of the vocabulary—only abundance. 
I know to envision this world seems overwhelming and like Martha, sometimes it is just easier to be distracted by temporal matters and keep our heads down and focus on what is right in front of us, and even more, sometimes it is easier to just complain.
But the problem with Martha’s world is that she will never be completely satisfied.  If we are looking for reality in things temporal, then our lives will consist of disappointment after disappointment.  Like the crowd, we will live in a terrible cycle of going from having too much to having almost nothing at all.  We will exhaust ourselves with emotional highs and lows.  We will spend our entire lives being frustrated and distracted by many things. 
However, there is good news.  God is giving us a way to be satisfied even when the material and physical reality around us looks dark and gloomy, even when the work that is supposed to be getting done isn’t getting done.  More specifically, the good news is that God has given us a vision of what true life looks like right now. 
Through the risen Lord, through the one who defeated the cross and the grave, God has given us a vision of life beyond even the detour sign that says, turn around and go home.  In fact, Jesus is telling us that home is beyond the detour sign, beyond the sign that tells us that it is impossible to go any further.    
Friends, God’s dream of new life beyond the impossible is available now—not through our own doing but through the One who is risen from the dead, through the one who has already completed the reality we all desire to know.  Not only is God calling us to trust his new vision where life is abundant for all, God has already laid out that of abundant life vision through his Son Jesus Christ.  God’s Master Plan is complete.  And our work is to trust God’s Master Plan given in Christ. 
So I invite you to consider where God’s dream is being born in our community.  And remember God’s dreams usually come from unexpected places.  Where do you see seeds of new life on the verge of sprouting out of the soil?  How is the True Bread feeding you and giving you the vision to see how God is transforming our physical reality with spiritual food?       

Once you see this world, once you trust this way to life, then you won’t be asking for more manna, instead, like Mary Katherine unwittingly does at the communion rail, you will be asking for more communion bread, like the crowd who wants this true bread always, you will be asking for more of that nourishment that gives you the fuel to see more and more how God is feeding us with a spiritual reality that can satisfy our hunger now and forever.  Amen.