Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What If He Was Jesus?

          First of all, I want to say thank you for the overwhelming show of love in the days following my mother’s death.  It is during times like these that I am especially grateful for family.  In addition to my earthly family, I am grateful for the family that Jesus has chosen for me through the Church and in particular through the parish at St. Paul’s.  I truly hope all of you know what a special family you have here at St. Paul’s.
              With my mother in mind, I want to reflect on today’s lesson by remembering a conversation I had with my mom.  About 10 years ago, my mom spent some time in Chicago to reconnect with her family of origin and lived with her cousin Kitty.  As she was walking down the frigid streets of Chicago one afternoon, she noticed a homeless man asleep on a bench.
            She wanted to stop to help but didn’t know how.  She didn’t have any money.  She didn’t know where the closest homeless shelter was.  While helpless, she felt compassion for this man.  And she carried the image of this homeless man with her for the rest of the day. 
            Being the Catholic she was raised to be, she prayed the Rosary holding this man up in prayer asking Mary to comfort this man with the loving care of a mother.  At some point during her prayers she came to the realization that this homeless man might have been Jesus.  What if he was Jesus? she asked. 
            What if he was Jesus?  Even though my mom didn’t find physical shelter for this man, she did something even more important.  She carried the pain and anguish of this man with her and handed it over to the Blessed Mother, to Mary whose Son was mocked, whipped, stripped, and left alone to die on a cross. 
My mom identified Jesus in a helpless, homeless man whom the world had forgotten and left for dead.  And she prayed that he might find comfort and relief in the loving arms of the Blessed Mother whose tender care heals the broken hearted. (pause)
We live in a world that is terrified of getting too close to the Lazarus’of the world.  In fact, we build symbolic and even physical gates so we don’t have to notice the poor man covered with sores lying outside our gates – out of sight, out of mind. 
But who could blame us?  It’s just too much sometimes.  So we close ourselves off from the pain of the world – and even from the pain in our own hearts.  But we all learned a long time ago that ignoring the pain just kicks the can down the road until the can turns into a boulder that can’t be kicked.
I do find it interesting, though, that so often we are moved with compassion when national or global tragedy strikes.  We are quick to raise money and offer prayers.  We are quick to travel thousands of miles to aid those in need.
Truly, we are a people who have the capacity to show compassion because we have a God who has the capacity to show compassion.  However, for whatever reason, it seems the most difficult people to show compassion to are often the people we see every day like the Lazarus’ at our gate.
Is it because we know the poor man at our gate won’t change?  Is it because we know all too well that Lazarus didn’t get there by chance?  Lazarus must have made a series of choices that led him to a place where only dogs stopped to notice his pain. 
But as one of my mom’s favorite writers and theologians Thomas Merton notes, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it’s nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
We in the South have an especially hard time with this notion of loving the so-called “unworthy”.  We are a people who work hard for what we get.  We are a people who know that the way to get ahead is by showing good manners and proper etiquette.  While these are all good things, if these social niceties and hard work do not shape the heart to love even the unlovable, then we have missed the point.
If we have learned anything in Luke’s Gospel, then we know that Jesus isn’t interested in being fair. Jesus isn't interested in being polite.  Remember that Jesus didn't care when his disciples didn't wash their hands before dinner ?Remember the Prodigal Son?  Remember the Lost Sheep?  Remember the Unjust Steward?  No, the gospel is not about fairness.  The gospel is about showing compassion to the lonely, the last, and the rejected – even if the gospel has to break the 'rules'. 
I believe that we as a people not only try to ignore the Lazarus at the gate but also the Lazarus inside our own hearts.  And in an attempt to ignore Lazarus in us all we inevitably strive to be like the rich man dressed in purple who feasts sumptuously every day.  When we ignore Lazarus, we will spend our lives trying to outrun the disgrace of poverty only to find ourselves, at our death, facing eternal poverty.
Ultimately, if we shutout Lazarus, then we reject Christ himself, the One who lifts the world to life by becoming poor and lowly, despised and rejected.  But tricky part is that if we are willingly to notice Lazarus, we will make ourselves vulnerable to the pain and anguish of the world.  If we do carry Lazarus in our hearts, then we will come to the terrible conclusion that we cannot possibly bear this terrible burden.  If we do notice Lazarus, our hearts will break.
But carrying the pain of the world is way of the cross.  But the good news says that the way of the cross teaches us lay our burden down at the feet of Jesus, the way of the cross teaches us to cast our grief on the One who says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
While the 1970s cultural phenomenon of I’m okay, you’re okay might have been appropriate for its time, I believe we would do better today to say, “I’m not okay, you’re not okay, but we can be okay together.”  As Jesus shows us in his life, death, and resurrection, the path to healing begins when we share the pain of the other, when we share the burden of the other, when we put our trust in a God who makes all things new – even pain and death. 
Ultimately, Jesus, in his brokenness, lifts a world of pain and death to life again.  Likewise, when we lift the broken and downtrodden to life again, we lift the broken and downtrodden inside our own heart and soul to life again.  I will say again that you at St. Paul’s are an inspiring witness to this truth. 
And now, as we finish raising money to take care of our house through Building on our Foundation, it is time to look outward.  We at St. Paul’s have a house of worship where all the neighborhood kids want to come and play.
We have the prettiest windows.  We have the only bell tower with real bells.  We have a courtyard where everyone wants to come and have their pictures done.  We have the best breakfast in Selma.  And we have the most intelligent and loving and caring people in town.
I hope we, the family of St. Paul’s, learn to embrace what we do best and truly make this beautiful and sacred space a house where all are invited and welcome.  As Frederick Beuchner said, “vocation is the place where our greatest gifts meet the world’s greatest needs.”  In the following weeks, I invite you to pray about where St. Paul’s greatest gifts can meet our community’s greatest needs.
I’m not asking you to come up with programs that require a lot of money.  I’m simply asking you to consider how St. Paul’s can take what we already do best and offer our best to those who long to know what it means to be a part of a loving family.  How can we offer our best to the Lazarus’ of this world, to the Jesus who lies in the ditch?
I know some of you might be thinking that this sounds like too much change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I can tell you, based on the Episcopal Church’s latest paper on growth and decline, churches who do not change to adapt to the needs of their neighbors are the first churches to decline and even die. 
And I know this, God did not call us to preserve our historic buildings just so we could stay the same.  God is taking a church who has been faithful to the needs of a community for over 175 years and calling us grow more and more into a people who reflect the kingdom of heaven in a church building that is a powerful witness to that kingdom.
As I remembered in my round of golf on Friday, you can’t finish strong if all you are thinking about is maintaining the good scorecard you already have.  We at St. Paul’s have a great round going and instead of making sure we don’t blow it; we hold a faith that tells us that the only way we can possibly blow it is if we aren’t willing to risk taking all the shots that we have in our bag – remember the parable of the talents?
Beloved, God has blessed St. Paul’s with so much.  God has blessed St. Paul’s with a building that oozes with the riches of his grace.  God has blessed us with the capacity to show compassion through Jesus Christ, the One who died for you.  God has dismantled the gates of fear and death and sin and poverty forever. 

The only thing left to choose is a life that seeks to serve the risen Christ in the heart of the Lazarus who lies at our gate.  The only thing left to do is to claim the truth in both word and deed that everyone belongs to the family of God.  Amen.    

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Taking the Long Position

Reflection on The Story - Chapter 2: God Builds a Nation (Genesis Ch. 12-22)

            I have often questioned God’s wisdom in giving children to people who are still basically children themselves!  The response, of course, is always “God does this because young people have the energy to keep up with children while the older and wiser adults do not.”  Nevertheless, God gives children to people who have no idea what they are doing.  Notice that God’s plan usually goes against common sense
            However, as we read in Genesis, God does not build his nation with a young newlywed couple.  Instead, God chooses an older, wiser couple – Abram and Sarai.  This sounds like a great idea – parents who might have a clue!  There is one problem.  Abram and Sarai aren’t supposed to be able to have children.  They are too old.
            Nonetheless, God moves forward with a new and improved plan to draw his people back into a relationship after the fall by building a nation who will love God and each other.  And going against common sense (again), God chooses two unlikely people to carry this plan out.
            The next part of the story is like watching a hedge fund manager take a long position on a stock that appears to be dead in the water.  Initially, the stock increases in value because there is a hint of excitement over this new venture – there is some buy in. 
However, the price of the stock falls over the years.  Even members of the company start to buy shares in a rival company (think Abram having a baby with the servant girl Hagar).  In case things don’t work out, the employees want to be sure they have something to fall back on.
However, the CEO of this company is relentless.  The same old promises are made again and again.  “You will soon have more money than Davey Crockett!” or something like that…Meanwhile, a disillusioned employee in the back of the room starts laughing.  But the CEO is dead serious.
Finally, twenty-five years later, when the remnant of the company is about to walk out for good, a major breakthrough occurs.  The stock-prices start to soar.  The employees have more money than Davey Crockett - and the employee in the back of the room is still laughing but this time with joy!  The company has a great run!  Sure, there are a few scandals along the way.  But what did we expect?  This is Wall Street!

However, shareholders in the company get greedy.  They gang up on the most lucrative guy so they can get a bigger slice of the pie.  But the tables will soon turn.  The greedy shareholders will be at the mercy of the guy they threw in the alley. 

What will happen next?  What is to come of the CEO?  A rumor is circulating that he is about to be charged with insider-trading.  But wait, a whole lot more happens in the meantime…

They say, 'People plan; God laughs.'  It seems more appropriate to say, 'God plans, we laugh.'

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Story - Chapter 1 - Creation

Reflection: The Story - Chapter 1 - Creation

            As I was putting my 3-year-old daughter Mary Katherine to bed the other night, she asked me to tell her a Bible story.  I told her about creation and how God said that everything he made was “very good.”  I told Mary Katherine that she was “very good” too.  She smiled quietly.
            After a few minutes of silence, Mary Katherine said, “Daddy, I want you to tell me a Bible story with Mary Katherine in it.”  I smiled quietly and told her about how Jesus loves the little children – including Mary Katherine.  She smiled again. 
            Several nights later I read the Creation Story using The Story For Little Ones.  Mary Katherine gazed at the pictures and asked if she was in the picture.  I said, “I don’t know.  Do you think you are?”  Mary Katherine replied, “I think I am behind the elephant.  He is big, and I am small so you can’t see me.”  I told her I thought she was right.  And then Mary Katherine named everyone else in the picture including all her friends and family.
            As adults, both as Christian and non-Christians, we often see the Bible as an ancient text that is little or no relevance to our lives today.  We have debates over its historical accuracy.  We try to explain why science may or may not support scripture.  We waste words debating over who holds the best interpretation of the Bible. 
In the process of explaining scripture away, we lose touch with the simple truth that the Bible is a story that tells us about the nature of God and the nature of humanity.  We lose touch with the truth that scripture tells us all about how God endlessly pursues his beloved children with love even when we try to run and hide.
It is no surprise that the Bible, an unbelievable story about God’s love for us, is the best-selling book of all time.  However, I was quite shocked to find out that according to a study in 2008 only 16% of Americans read the Bible on a regular basis – Bible belt included. 
I would argue that this trend is due in large part to the fact that we as Christians often use the Bible to affirm our own self-centered beliefs instead of letting God shape us into selfless servants through his amazing love revealed in Jesus.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.  We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts can be taken for use as weapons.”  Simply put, the Bible is an incredible resource for all of us sinners to grow in the knowledge and love of God.
           Over the next 31-weeks, I, along with my priest associate, Rev. Henry Hudson, will be guiding people through the greatest story ever told in hopes that anyone who picks up the Bible will learn to find themselves in God’s masterpiece, a picture that shows us how God’s story in Christ redeems any story – even your story. 

The Story - Ch. 1 - Class Recording

The Story - Ch. 1 - Class Outline