Tuesday, June 28, 2016

And Other Bad Things...

            Today’s lesson from Galatians has always been a lesson that tends to stand out when thinking of the most important pieces of scripture in my faith journey.  About 5 years ago, the lesson began to stand out for another reason. 
            One of the most faithful lectors was reading at the early service at All Saints’.  He was always sort of a bull in a china shop kind of reader, but he read with passion.  And let’s just say he wasn’t boring to listen to.  I liked it.  You never knew what he was going to say next. 
            So he got to the list of vices that we see in Galatians.  He read, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity…”  He paused for a moment.  I looked down at the text and saw the word “licentiousness.”  I waited with great anticipation to see how he would handle this one.
            I could see the wheels turning in his head.  And then I saw a light bulb go off.  He went back to the starting line and started over on the list.  He blurted out, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, and other bad things…”  And like a kid in a china shop who just broke the Nancy Regan place setting, he turned to me with a huge grin before returning to the text.
            And other bad things.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this interpretation as more than just a liturgical goof.  Even if our spiritual vices don’t appear on this list, we all know a little bit about those other bad things.  Like St. Paul said elsewhere, we all know what it is like to do the things we don’t want to do and not do the things we want to do.
            We are like that person who goes to Wendy’s fully intending to order a salad from the healthy menu.  We drive up, roll down our window, and the aroma of freshly cooked French fries wafts through our window. 
            We are seduced by the smell, rendered powerless, and order a number 2.  And when the teller asks what size, we make it a large size.  What to drink?  A diet soda because that will compensate for the 1,000 calorie meal we just ordered!
              The problem, for most of us, is that we are well intentioned people who end up doing other bad things despite our best efforts.  And the temptation is to look at these lists as a check list of things to do if you want to be a Christian.  And it seems the harder we try to do the things we want to do the more self-absorbed and obsessed with our righteousness we become, and we end up simply living for ourselves—breeding the other bad things.
            Don King, our Verger—not the boxing promoter, told an old Cherokee parable last Tuesday at our book study.  It is called “Two Wolves.”
An old Cherokee chief was talking to his grandson about life.  He told the boy, “There is a great battle going on inside of me and it is between two wolves.”  He said, “One wolf is anger and pride and lies and self-indulgence and greed.  The other wolf is kind, gentle, disciplined, humble, and full of compassion.” 
He said to the boy, “The same fight is going on inside of you—and everybody else, too.”  The boy thought for a minute and his curiosity asked, “Which wolf will win?”  The chief said, “The one you feed.”
The theologian inside of me wants to issue a warning and say that this parable comes dangerously close to perpetuating the heresy of dualism—that is the idea that evil and goodness are the products of two separate creations.  I.e. God is good and the world is bad or we are good and they are bad or there is a good Jack and a bad Jack.  I’ll simply say this.  In the beginning God made creation and all that is in it and called it “very good.”
Okay, back to the Cherokee parable and how this parable can inform how we are given the ability to exhibit all those good things instead of other bad things...Obviously, we would all like to feed the good wolf inside of us and let that wolf win.  But based on experience, feeding the good wolf isn’t as easy as it sounds. 
We often treat St. Paul’s list of virtues like something we can just pick up at the grocery store.  But at the grocery store we also have to go to the check-out line that is filled with sugars and candies and tasteless magazines—we are overwhelmed by solutions that look flashy on the outside but leave us empty on the inside.
Even more, trying to pick up the things we need at the grocery store is like trying to carry around a greased watermelon.  At first we can manage.  But after a while, we start to lose our grip.  Until finally the watermelon explodes at our feet at the check-out line.  And what is at the check-out line? We pick up the most convenient options instead.

When we run out of the kind of food the good wolf needs to survive, we resort to the most convenient food—sugar and carbohydrates—the cheap stuff.  We resort to the food that makes us bloated and tired just a few hours after consumption.
We resort to quick fixes, to the stuff that fills us up quickly only to leave us in a world of hurt a few hours later.  We resort to the kind of things that con us into believing we can pretend the bad wolf inside of us doesn’t exist.  It has been said, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. 
The truth of God tells us that the food that feeds the good wolf comes from a source bigger than ourselves.  Like Jamie tells Mary Katherine, we eat the food that God gives us—fruits and vegetables and water and bacon.  We eat the food that most grocery stores don’t carry. 
This is the food that cleanses us and restores us.  This is the food that gives us a better chance of survival in a world that is saturated with cheap solutions.  This is the food that gives us the energy to run with endurance patience the race that God has set before us—a journey marked by kindness and mercy and discipline.
  A life lived according to the fruits of the Spirit is maintained not because of our own will—no matter how good our intentions. Instead, a life that exhibits the fruits of the Spirit is maintained because we return to worship the One whose life oozes with kindness and compassion and gentleness and self-control.  We are maintained in the life of God by consuming food from God.
Our worship calls us to consume the life of God in Christ through his Word and Sacrament.  In worship, our words are shaped by the Word.  In worship, our life is shaped by the life of Christ.  At the Lord’s Table, we receive the body and blood of Christ and are reminded that we are what we eat. 
Our worship and our consumption of the life of Christ frees us from worrying about whether or not we are living right for we no longer live for ourselves—we live for God; we live for each other—we live for the One who was freed to live for us.  And when we live for God, we are committing to a faith that believes Jesus is converting all those bad things into good things.  
St. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.  For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”    
Like Paul says, our freedom in Christ is not a freedom to indulge in all the other bad things and live any kind of life we want.  In fact, this is no freedom at all.  Instead, this kind of indulgence will make us slaves to people and ideas and idols and solutions and agendas and cheap food that will fail us every time—and if they don’t fail us they will certainly fail those around us.
Instead, the kind of freedom that Paul is talking about is a freedom that is found when we get outside of ourselves.  Paul is talking about a freedom that releases us from being over infatuated with ourselves and our livelihood.  When we focus too much on ourselves and our own needs, we breed those other bad things—idolatry, anger, dissention, jealousy, etc—we feed the bad wolf. 
At Rotary Club a few weeks ago Bill Gamble gave us one of his famous truisms.  He said, “the quickest way to forget about your own problems is to help somebody else with theirs.”  From day one on this earth, Jesus was flooded with problems.  But Jesus committed his life to helping everyone else with their problems.
And Jesus’ solution had to do with leaving behind a world that is obsessed with trying to fix the problem with the most convenient solutions and leading us into a life that is done with temporary fixes.  Jesus is taking us on a journey where the other bad things become less and less tempting because Jesus is showing us a God whose food will satisfy our hunger to the point where our cravings for the bad stuff are converted into a passion and energy for a God who fills us and creation with all good things.  Amen.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come: And the Pain it Causes

          With a little help from Evelyn Underhill who was recognized on the liturgical calendar this past Wednesday, I have learned some important things about my spiritual journey this week that I would like to share with you this morning. 
Most notably, I have discovered that the more firmly rooted I find myself in the life of God—through worship and prayer and the reading of scripture—the more aware I become of the great chasm that exists between our world and the world God reveals in Christ.  In particular, I become deeply aware of the pain and heartache of this world and find myself saying, “it shouldn’t be like this.”
            Consequently, I have learned that my birth into the kingdom of God is not some escape to a utopia free from pain and worry.  Instead, my being born into the life of God makes it abundantly clear to me just how broken and devastated our earthly kingdoms are set in contrast to God’s heavenly kingdom made known in Christ. 
            Remembering a passage from the Book of Revelation, I find myself identifying more and more with the souls in heaven who cry out from beneath the altar of God saying, “How long must your people suffer, O Lord?”
As one priest suggests (Barbara Brown Taylor), our Christian vocation calls us to see that the world is not the way it should be but we are to love the world the way it is.  I believe this is the vocation of Christians because this is the vocation of Christ—to love a broken and sinful world.
And like those who call out from beneath the altar of God in heaven, the primary way in which we find ourselves moved and inspired to act on this love for a broken and damaged world is through prayer.  Left to our own devices, I am afraid we would all spiral into an abyss of chaos and nothingness.  Without the knowledge of this radical love that God reveals so fully in Christ, we would all eventually disconnect ourselves from anything and everything that is good and holy and right.
But prayer, even in all its clumsiness, has the power to recreate and renew our heart and our soul and our eyes to see the world as God sees the world.  Prayer not only opens our eyes to see the Eternal reality of God but also opens our eyes to see how God in Christ loves a world that often times is so unlovable.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury said just this week, “to start praying is to take an enormous risk-we change and the world around us changes.”    
On Wednesday evening, about 40 gathered next to the bridge to hold a prayer vigil for those who lost their lives in the mass shooting in Orlando.  It was hot and muggy.  We couldn’t get the PA system to work.  I was in a bit of a frenzy because the conditions weren’t ideal.  But as God has the tendency to do, God showed up despite the circumstances.  God tapped me on the shoulder a few times and reminded me that his presence was near.
While Psalm 23 was being read, two of our parishioners who are both under the age of 5, offered what I will call a spontaneous liturgical dance.  And just when the reader read the part of the famous Psalm that says, “my cup runneth over” the two children dropped a bottle of water that spilled out all over the ground.
Immediately, God’s reality was made visible.  In the beginning when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep the wind of God swept over the waters.  The wind of God swept over us on Wednesday—something even our most articulate prayers couldn’t manufacture. 
After the prayer vigil, I met two tourists who happened to be taking pictures in front of the bridge at the time.  The tourists were from Orlando and expressed deep appreciation for the vigil and asked for our continued prayers.  Surely, the Spirit of God connects the human family on a deeper level than even the best laid human plans.        
The image of God was reflected in the diversity of the crowd.  In the face of the young and old, the black and white.  In the face of those who go to church all the time and in the face of those who rarely if ever go to church.  In the face of preachers and politicians and city leaders. 
In the face of the rich and the poor, the privileged and marginalized.  In the face of both the gay and the straight.  In the face of both Jew and Christian, male and female.  In the face of a people who long for a world this is set free from the destructive forces of pride, prejudice, intolerance, hatred, and indifference. 
As I looked out over the crowd gathered in prayer, I was reminded of the passage from Galatians that we just read.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  God, through prayer, moved me again to see the world as God sees the world.
Again my heart began to ache because the world that we live in often looks so different than the world God creates for us in Christ.  I have to imagine that Jesus’ heart ached too when he prayed the words, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
            Unlike God’s heavenly kingdom, we live in a world that still treats people based on class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, and the list goes on.  We live in a world that is crippled by the sins of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia. 
Simply put, we are too often driven by fear of the other mainly because we don’t know the other.  And if we really want to get right down to it, this fear causes us to notice the sin of the other instead of looking for the image of God in all people.
            As a straight, white, male, I am becoming more and more aware of my privilege in life.  I am becoming more and more aware that in this society I am the least likely person to be discriminated against based on color, gender, class, and sexual orientation—mainly because people like me hold most of the power.  There is no door in this society that I can’t walk through.   
A few months ago, as I was struggling with what to do with my place of privilege—I didn’t ask for this, right?, I asked two female clergy in the diocese to help me figure out what to do with it.  I’ll never forget their response.  They said, “use your position to give voice to those who have no voice.”  
So this morning I want to give voice to one of my best friends who is gay.  Like me, she went through the discernment process for ordination but was not granted the opportunity because of her sexual orientation.  I am still convinced that she would have made a lot better priest than me.
She and her friends are in a lot of pain.  This past week’s mass shooting in Orlando has accentuated that pain.  My friend and members of the LGBTQ community are children of God regardless of one’s opinion on their lifestyle.  Our vocation as Christian is to simply love as Christ loves us--and let that be enough for us all to find healing.
Like Paul said to the Galatians, we are no longer held hostage by the law.  Instead, we are granted life through the gift of faith.  And the gift of faith simply calls us to trust that loving Jesus is enough.  The gift of faith tells us that our love of Jesus will give us access to a life where we can quit dwelling on our sin and the sin of others.  Our love of Jesus has the power to produce fruit that gets us beyond discrimination and fear and see other's in the light of God.   
In a letter to a spiritual directee, Evelyn Underhill writes, “As your favorite St. Augustine said, 'Love and do what you like!' If you like wrong things, you will soon find the quality of your love affected."  In other words, we would do well to pay attention to how our love of Jesus produces the fruit of the Spirit and let that be an indicator of the faith given in Christ--and not get bogged down in what scripture may or may not have said about a particular issue.
Underhill goes on to say, "This same condition of love governs everything else...It seems to me that your immediate job must be to make this love active and operative right through your lifeTry to see people by God’s light. Then they become 'real.' Nothing helps one so much as that...When you have learnt to live within the love of God in this human and healthy sense, the question of sin will cease to be such a bogy as it is as present.”
Beloved, we live in a world that is broken and crying to be heard.  May we have the grace to put our ego and pride and opinions aside and listen to the cry of the marginalized.  May we have the grace to join them in prayer and call on the love of Jesus. 
And may our love of Jesus grant us all a vision of what it means to live in a world that is finished separating the other into different camps based on gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation.  May we have the grace to see in the other the image of God and let that be enough.  Amen.