"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Beauty of the Whole

 The 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C 

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Raise your hand if you have any collections at home—baseball cards, Magic cards, coins, stamps, dolls, novels by certain authors, CD’s, cars, Pokemon ….? Anything that I haven’t named? It feels pretty good when you get a complete set of whatever you are collecting, doesn’t it? There’s a glorious satisfaction in admiring the completeness of the set, the beauty of the whole. And when you lose one of your collectibles, it’s very frustrating, isn’t it? And the smaller the collection, the worse the loss, too. Losing one out of one hundred items is one thing, but one out of just ten—ouch! Have you ever torn through the whole house looking for the piece that you lost? Have you ever spent whole days and months consumed with trying to find the one piece that’s missing?  [Children, I challenge you today to draw or list your favorite collection if it were completely whole, without any of the pieces missing. I’ll tell you what to do with it at the end of the sermon.]
Of course, the biggest loss for us all is that of our loved ones: the panic of a parent losing a child in a crowded mall … the pain of losing a spouse to death or divorce… the hurt of losing a friend who has moved away… the unending grief of that empty chair at the supper table … the gnawing heartache of waiting to hear from a loved one who might have been in the rubble of the Twin Towers. We long for the wholeness, the completeness, of our love. As the mother of three adults now living far away, my heart still does a dance of joy on the rare occasions when all of my beloved children are sleeping under my roof. When they are all home at once, the family is complete; I know that they are safe; the house is whole like it used to be. I look at those shoes all over the floor and those laptops plugged into all the outlets, and those glasses piled up in the sink, and I breathe a sigh of pure contentment.
Before we identify too completely with the losing and finding in today’s Gospel, though, let me point out that these parables are full of exaggeration. Did you notice it? None of us is really going to go off and leave 99 defenseless sheep alone in the desert while he hunts for just one who wandered off, right? That would be irresponsible—something like me leaving the nursery children alone in the chapel with the candles lit while I hunt for something in my office. And none of us is really going to throw a party for the whole neighborhood in celebration over finding a lost coin! People would think that we had lost our minds!
          Jesus exaggerates in his parables, because he wants to shake up the way we think. Jesus isn’t addressing the lost or the grieving in today’s Gospel. He’s talking to the people who are complaining about the company that he keeps. He’s talking to good people like you and me: people who follow the rules; people who go to church and tithe and sit on committees and teach Sunday school. Jesus is talking to children who listen to the teacher at school and turn in their homework on time. Jesus is talking to good people who don’t hang out with the wrong crowd. He’s talking to all of us God-fearing people who know the difference between right and wrong.
Jesus is telling us good church-going Episcopalians that God is not bound by the measures that rule our lives. It might be crazy for us to leave 99 sheep to look for one, but that’s what God does. We might not fully imitate the diligence or the extravagance of the woman with her coins, but God sure does. Jesus is showing us that God's abundant love is beyond our understanding. Yes, God loves us, but God also loves the people who scare us, the people who disgust us, the people who don’t live by our rules. And most of all, God rejoices with all creation when the lost and the found are reunited at the same table—when the circle of love is complete.
A few years ago, in another parish, I had money stolen out of my purse in my office at church. “Who would do such a thing?” I fumed. “What kind of terrible person would abuse my trust and dishonor the church in that way?” A few days later, a stranger showed up at our small Saturday night Eucharist with a sad-faced little boy in tow. She accosted me at the Peace, desperate for money. I told her that I couldn’t help her until after the service. In the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, she slipped out of the room. As I prayed to God over the bread and wine, the holiest time of the Eucharist, my Pharisee-mind was running rampant, thinking, “Oh man, I hope that I remembered to lock my office. Did I lock it? What was I doing before the service? That's it--I’m going to be robbed again. Did I lock the church office, too?” Fret, fret … This is my Body, given for you… fret, fret… this is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins ...  worry, worry ...
After the prayer, I noticed that the woman and her little boy had returned, hanging back behind the pews. Guilt-ridden for my thoughts, yet absolutely certain that someone like her would not join us, I feebly called out to her, out of duty, you see: “You are welcome to join us at the altar for Communion.” Well, you know what? She came. She joined our circle of pious Episcopalians. We all held hands during the Lords’ Prayer, and I fed her the body and blood of Christ.
          I later found out that this woman was indeed wanted by the police for robbing churches in order to pay for her heroin habit. The next time that she came back, desperate for cash, looking very much like the kind of people that Jesus ate with, I was still afraid. I offered her help that she didn’t want. I locked doors and called the police and thought all of my judging thoughts. In our day to day world of addiction and fear, she was still lost, and I was still a judging, fearful goody-two-shoes, and God still had her hands full reaching out to us both.
But here’s the amazing thing: for one moment at that Saturday night Eucharist, when she and her son stood in our circle, holding out their hands for Jesus, we all became the Body of Christ, and I know that God rejoiced. In that moment, we were whole in God’s eyes. No one was missing, left out, shoved aside, or lost to the complete circle of love that God desires for each one of God’s children. God's persistent love is like the story that I read recently of a Japanese woman whose daughter was lost in the terrible tsunami a few years ago. Her body had been swept out to sea and had not been found. So for years, this woman would get up at 5 a.m. every single day before work and lovingly cook one of her daughter’s favorite meals. She would carefully wrap it in a biodegradable container and make the long bus trip to the beach in order to place it on the waves that had swallowed her daughter. Every day, for years, she was reaching out to her beloved child in the only way that she knew how, carefully feeding her baby who had been lost.[1] Such is the devotion of the God who wants so desperately to be in relationship with us that he sent his only Son to be our food and drink in this complex maze of a world in which we wander.
The Good News for us in Jesus’ parable is this: like the shepherd, like the woman with the coins, like the mother in Japan, God will not rest until we, the beloved lost and the beloved self-righteous, are in every moment joined together in Christ, in the beauty of wholeness.
[So children, after church, I challenge you to find someone that you don’t know very well out in the narthex and share your collection with him or her. Tell that person about it, and enjoy it together. God will rejoice with you.]And we adults, how can we reach out beyond our comfort zones this week, placing a gift into the sea of need that laps at our feet, drawing near to someone whom we have been judging? When we do, we will hear God and all the angels of heaven rejoice.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/magazine/the-lost-ones.html?_r=1, cited by Jill Duffield in the Presbyterian Outlook, “Looking Into the Lectionary, September 11, 2016,” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/156fb86a9a1da524

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Urgency of Fire

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year C
Luke 12:49-53

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

O God, take our minds and think through them; take our lips and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

Set our hearts on fire …. Did you feel any twinges of unease when I opened my sermon with this prayer, a prayer that preachers like to use on Pentecost? Do you think that it’s safe to have a bunch of burning hearts in here this morning? Won’t all that heat lead to chaos, maybe to an argument or two over coffee in the narthex? Won’t it lead at least to more emotion than is comfortable? Do we really want to ask God for “heartburn” on a Sunday morning before lunch?

And what do you make of Jesus’ fire-talk in today’s Gospel? Isn’t it a little over the top, too? I was sorely tempted to preach on Hebrews this morning, entertaining you with heart-warming stories about the Olympics and “running the race with perseverance.” But then I thought, “What kind of a ‘priest for family ministry’ ignores Jesus telling us that our families are all going to fall apart!” When Jesus starts sounding like our most brash and scare-mongering political candidate, then it’s time for the preacher to step up and take a closer look!
Before I get into the shocking family references, let’s concentrate on this “fire” for a moment. On the one hand, fire can be beautiful, right? It dances and leaps in silken oranges and glowing reds; it grills up a delicious smoky piece of meat; it warms us to the bone on a chilly night; it calms and centers us in a flickering candle flame. But fire also rages through forests and homes, unstoppably destructive, reducing everything in its path to a dead and blackened crisp. Fire is powerful; it is not something that is easily controlled. I can still remember the first time that I watched my father put a cardboard milk carton into our fireplace at home. As it melted and shriveled to nothing in the blink of an eye, I vowed then and there to keep a safe distance from things that burn. I kept to that vow pretty well, cajoling classmates into lighting the Bunsen burners for me in chemistry lab, until I was a single mom trying to grill hamburgers for her kids. Then one night in early spring, a winter’s worth of cobwebs had blocked the gas tubes of my grill, and fire suddenly shot out of the “off switch,” only inches from the flammable canister below. There was nothing that I could do to prevent a disastrous explosion except to stick my hand into the flames to turn the melting plastic knob. Thank goodness for good barbecue mitts. Yes, worst of all, fire explodes.
I wonder which kind of fire Jesus is so eager to throw down upon the land in today’s Gospel? Is it the all-powerful fire of God’s mysterious Love? Beautiful flames that burn without consuming, like the pillar of fire that leads the people of Israel through the desert, dances on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost, and causes Moses to fall on his face before the burning bush? That kind might not be so bad …
Or is it the scary and destructive fire of judgment—the fire that the prophet Elijah throws down from God onto the idolatrous prophets of Baal and the opposing armies of King Ahaziah in the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it the unquenchable fire of divine wrath with which John’s Jesus curses the barren fig tree?  The devouring, dramatic fire into which he will toss the useless chaff from the harvest on Judgement Day? Episcopalians don’t like to talk about that kind of fire.
Or maybe it’s God’s purifying fire, just as hot as the fire of divine judgment and just as alluring as the loving fire of God’s presence? The “refiner’s fire” that the prophet Malachai describes—the one that burns away impurities to create precious silver and gleaming gold out of heaps of ugly rock? The fire of struggle and crisis out of which something new and exquisite emerges? There’s a story about a woman who visits a silversmith. She asks him how he knows when the silver is ready, when it is refined. He answers, “when I can see my face in the silver.” One preacher writes about this story, “God is the refiner, carefully holding his gaze on each of us as he refines precious metal until it reflects his own image back at him.”[1] That is the glory of the refining fire.
All of these images from scripture have one thing in common, though: fire, like God, cannot be ignored or easily controlled. Fire’s burning heat demands our attention, and yet it escapes our control. The flames are too quick for us, even when we try to manage them. God always comes to us like a lit match in the midst of a dry prairie.
Jesus’ words to us today are indeed urgent words, as urgent as a spreading fire. He is speaking to his followers as he approaches Jerusalem and his arrest and crucifixion. Each step is bringing him closer to his second “baptism,” a baptism of fire, a baptism through the hard wood of the cross. The fulfillment of this baptism is going to change the world. It will place his followers before a decision—a decision which cannot be ignored, an urgent decision. The refining, judging fire of God’s love is about to sweep down into their lives with a force that they have never felt before. Just like the Holy Spirit sweeps into ours. Will we let the fire of God’s dawning Kingdom change our lives, our world, our community, our church? Not deciding is not an option.
Of course Jesus isn’t telling us in these verses that he wants us to go out and make war on our mothers, our brothers, our sisters. Jesus isn’t teaching us how to act in this passage at all.[2] Jesus is telling us that the effect of his presence in our lives is going to place us in a burning meadow, and we will have to decide which way to go. When the father welcomes the prodigal son with extravagant love, doesn’t the elder son create division in refusing to join in the party? When the vineyard owner pays the late workers in the vineyard the same salary as the workers who were there at dawn, doesn’t the indignation of the early-birds cause a huge rift? When the Bishop of Tennessee raised the processional cross and followed a beckoning Jesus out of Eucharist at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, in order to join the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in a demonstration for civil rights, didn’t his congregational family splinter to shreds? When our General Convention felt the urgent call of the Holy Spirit and made the choice to ordain Bishop Gene Robinson, wasn’t the Episcopal household divided? God doesn’t bring division. God forces decision! When we’re afraid to stand up for love and justice out of fear of upsetting someone, whether it be our brother in Christ or our brother-in-law, Jesus says that we’re as false to our beliefs as the hypocrite of a meteorologist who knows that the big storm is coming but refuses to make a forecast.
Understanding Jesus’ words in this difficult text are important, but what I’m wondering right now is what kind of fire Jesus wants to send into my life today? And into yours? What kind of fire does he wish were already blazing? Where do you feel Jesus’ burning urgency of decision nipping at your toes? Is it a decision to love more fully—to let myself be lit from within by God’s grace? Is it a decision to stand up for justice in my world, to speak God’s burning truth even when others might turn against me? Is it a decision to step today into God’s purifying fire so that all of the busyness, or all of the fear, or all of the shame might be burned away, so that God’s face might shine clearly in the silver of my soul? Whatever it is that speaks to you, trust the urgency. O God, right now, today, take our minds and think through them; take our lips and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

[1] Meghan Feldmeyer, “Strange Fire,” a sermon found at https://chapel.duke.edu/sites/default/files/Strange%20Fire--08-18-13_0.pdf
[2] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year C  (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), 229.