"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, March 10, 2018

The Great Raptor Rescue

 Lent 2B

Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Wow, aren't today's lessons exciting?! Their message is so exciting that Wave 3 News came out on Thursday for the first time since I've worked here. At least, I think that's why they came ... You see, the children from Louisville Classical Academy were out in front of the church with their teacher, our own Leigh Anne Preston, having PE class. All of a sudden, they looked up and started pointing and hollering about "a bird in the lamp." There was a large, red-shouldered hawk caught way up high in the hanging lamp over our main church doorway. Leigh Anne called Raptor Rehabilitation of Louisville, and they came right out to help.

As soon as I heard about the excitement, I came outside to see for myself. I looked up and gasped in self-recognition. Yes, it was truly amazing and strange, just like the Gospel. The bird's sad and frightened eyes told me the real story:
          When our hawk squeezed into that lamp, he was indeed on top of the world. He had been out hunting in the dark of the early morning. He had been successful; he had a fine dove meal in his talons, one that he had caught by his own wits and skill. He had slipped into this safe, new perch—one where he could see all around to know when enemies were approaching. He felt secure in his snug little spot. I imagine that for a few minutes, our hawk ate his breakfast with a sigh of satisfaction and a self-congratulatory wing-pat on the back.
          Until he realized that he was stuck, that is. Pretty soon, after dinner, he tried to stretch out his wings. Thud, they hit the hard glass. Panic growing, he tried another side, another angle. But nothing moved. His high and glorious perch had suddenly become a prison. As the sun rose, he could see freedom all around him. Birds flew, children ran, and tree limbs danced in the breeze. But our hawk couldn't move. He was isolated, alone. He was trapped.
He called out for help, with loud, piercing cries. He longed for his rescuer to fly in from above. He watched for a Super-Raptor with glistening wings and talons three feet long. It would swoop down from the sky. It would dash its diamond beak against the glass and shatter the evil lamp that had imprisoned him so cruelly. He would mount on its back like eagles' wings, and it would carry him away to freedom.
Our hawk stood first on one foot, then on the other, impatient for salvation from his terrible predicament. His eyes were still on the sky when the old van rumbled up to the church. Two seventy-year-old humans slowly emerged from the van and started looking around.
"That's all I need right now," muttered our hawk. "Humans!"
The humans gawked and then disappeared inside the church.
When they came back out, they were carrying the biggest ladder that our hawk had ever seen. Awkwardly, they maneuvered the ladder closer and closer to the lamp, making a terrible racket with it. They sure didn't look like they knew what they were doing. And then, putting on a flimsy-looking yellow glove, the old man from the van started climbing the ladder. His weak knees trembled, and his chest huffed and puffed, and his wife fretted for his safety down below. But he kept climbing. The ladder shook, but he kept climbing. The hawk screeched and glared and puffed up his neck feathers as fierce as he could. But the old man kept climbing. The hawk's natural enemy, he kept climbing.
Reaching the top of the ladder, the old man plunged his hand in through the sharp glass of the lamp, right into the hawk's angry, kicking talons. Gently, oh so gently, he took hold of our trapped bird. Our hawk screeched in terror and beat his wings, and the old man simply said, "Oh no you don't!" and held on tighter. Down the ladder they came together, one shaky step at a time.
"We're going to take you to our home so that you can rest and get better," the old woman explained to our hawk. "As soon as your cuts are healed, we'll bring you back here and let you fly away to freedom. We promise. Just trust us."
That was the great St. Andrew's raptor rescue.
I'd like for our children to draw the rescue for us—both the hawk and the lamp and the old man and old woman in their old van. I'd like for you to draw it on the paper in your worship bags that says "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."
When I saw our hawk in his glass prison, I saw myself. And when I saw the rescue, I saw God's love in Jesus Christ. "For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have life abundant." Thanks be to God, we have been rescued from the glass prisons in which we encase ourselves so readily.[1] We certainly don't know how to get out of them on our own. Our rescuer God takes on frail human form for the task. In Christ, our God trembles as he climbs up a Cross. In Christ, our God lets his body be pierced as we struggle and fight his loving grasp. In Christ, our God takes us down with him into the cleansing, healing waters of baptism. And in Christ, we rise with him, free and ready to fly.
We Christians sometimes like to make a big deal about the criteria of "believing" when we hear today's Gospel lesson. As if to be rescued, you have to do something a certain way or hold to some specific doctrine. Despite what we hear sometimes from the televangelists, we do not have a condemning God. It says so right here in our Gospel lesson. We have a God who loves the whole world. We have a God who refuses to condemn the world. God desires the flourishing of this swirling, whirling, broken and beautiful world. God’s light shines wherever it can in this world and seeks to transform the dark, closed off places, not to destroy them. God chooses not to judge the world. Instead, God sends God’s Son into the midst of it and uses its brokenness to lift him—and us—up into Life.
St. Paul writes in today's Epistle, "For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus … which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." God made both humans and hawks to stretch our wings and soar on the currents of God's love for the whole world. Fly, hawks and humans, fly!

[1] For the "rescue" language, thank you to Bishop Owensby's wonderful blog https://jakeowensby.com/2018/03/10/looking-for-rescue/

Saturday, February 10, 2018

That Glimpse that Sends Us Flying


 Last Epiphany, Year B

The Transfiguration

Mark 9:2-9

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

           How many of you young people like to go down a good slide on the playground? I've seen most of you on the big, tall water slide that we set up at summer parish picnics, and I'm impressed. Even our three-year-olds climb up those steep steps and go zooming down the long slope into that cold water. And even though it's against the rules, I've seen some of you taking the slide head first, or twisting and turning with legs and arms sticking out all over as you descend. I just stand and shake my head in wonder.

You see, I have an embarrassing secret: when I was a little girl, I was afraid to go down any slides, even little ones. My parents would tempt me with an ice cream cone or extra allowance, but I still wouldn't do it. I didn't like that fast, slipping feeling, and I was afraid of falling hard onto my bottom or shooting up into the air like a cannonball. Even today, I don't like going down steep hills when I'm out hiking. I call out in a panicky voice, “Somebody’s going to have to hold my hand!” as soon as the gravel starts to slide around under my feet. I grasp for trees, even for thorn bushes, as soon as I feel like I might start slipping. I’ve even been known to sit down, bottom in the dirt, dignity abandoned, and scoot my way down a steep slope like a baby.
You might be braver than I am about sliding for fun, but what about the times when life becomes as wild and out of control as going down a water slide? What about the times when the grownups we love and depend on seem out of control, and we're afraid? What about when our own bodies and hormones change on us, and we can't even figure out our very own selves? What about all the times when the world around us gets so slippery and full of change that there's nowhere to hold on? Most of us don't like that at all, do we?
At times like that, we might even ask God to step in and get things under control for us. We often long for a God who will hold us upright when life gets topsy-turvy. We pray for God to keep us from falling on our metaphorical bottoms. But sometimes it's God who challenges us to change. Sometimes it's a glimpse of God that turns us upside down and sends us careening into unfamiliar places.
That's what happens in today's Gospel lesson. Take a look at the image on the first page of your bulletin. This is a traditional icon, or stylized image, of Jesus' Transfiguration that we read about today. You can see Jesus standing glorious and powerful in his bright robes, encased in white light. So far, so good.  You can see Moses, the mighty lawgiver, and Elijah, the brave prophet, standing proudly on either side of him. That's great! But where are Jesus' friends, James, Peter, and John? They aren't standing with Jesus on the heights. They didn't get to build a nice church up there, where they could shut themselves up with Jesus, like Peter wanted to do. Look at them lying sprawled out on the ground quite a ways back down the mountain. They look as if they have been physically thrown down from the higher slopes. Talk about scary slides! Look at Peter, covering his face. John is crouching on his knees, holding up a hand as if to shield himself from something. And James is sliding down the slope on his back, with his feet in the air. ([1]) They look like Jesus just pushed them down the big waterslide at St. Andrew's! And they don't look like they enjoyed it!
What is it about seeing Jesus filled with light that sends the disciples sliding down the mountain, dignity and control clearly abandoned? If the light surrounding Jesus is just a sign that Jesus is the Son of God, what's the big surprise? They've already seen him cure the sick and drive out demons. Why would that have pushed them over the edge?
What Jesus' early Jewish followers knew that we don't, is that this scene on the mountain is revolutionary. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses and Elijah never died. Instead, they were both taken straight up to heaven by God. If Moses and Elijah are standing with Jesus on this mountain, then that means that the disciples must be witnessing a vision of heaven itself. For a brief moment, heaven and earth are one. That's enough of a sight to rock anyone's world!
But that's not all. The white clothes that appear on Jesus are a symbol for the Glory of God. God's Glory is the tremendous, powerful, awe-inspiring manifestation of God’s presence that goes before God into the world. In the Bible story, the great Moses isn't worthy even to look at God's Glory—All he's allowed to see is God's backside. But now, on this mountain, Jesus is radiating God's Glory for all to see. Here, we see the Glory of Almighty God shining in all of its fullness through a human body. Eternity enters human flesh. Divine love and grace pour forth into the world through Jesus.
What does that mean for us today? I like the way our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters put it. They believe that the light that poured through Jesus at the Transfiguration still pours into us today. They describe God’s Glory as a kind of Energy, a kind of Light that constantly streams forth from God’s hidden Essence. This Light is a gift of the Spirit. It's found everywhere but can only be seen through matter, the "stuff" of this world.
Orthodox Christians call the process of being filled with God's light “deification,” becoming God. Such language might make us uncomfortable. “Becoming God” is just for Jesus, we think. This deification isn't something that we get from being perfect, though. It's not even something that we can earn for ourselves by our good deeds. It's merely something that we open ourselves up to in prayer.
Rowan Williams describes God’s Energy entering into us like the music that pours into musicians while they are performing. In making music, musicians are carried on the tide of an energy, by a great current of music that is becoming present and immediate in their actions.([2]) When God’s energy fills us, it doesn’t change who we are, but it fills us with an energy that allows who we truly are to shine forth—beloved children of a loving God.
Listen to the way in which poet Malcolm Guite describes it:
"The Love that dances at the heart of things / Shone out upon us from a human face / And to that light the light in us leaped up,/ We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,/ A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope/ Trembled and tingled through the tender skin. Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar/ Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are."([3])
For me, it's when I get those little glimpses of how things really are that I get blown away. It happened to me in ninth grade, back when I was a budding scientist, born and bred. I thought church was stupid, and Christians were hypocrites. One day, in the middle of a boring history class, a teacher unveiled God for me in the simple beauty of words, and suddenly I caught a glimpse of a Light that I'd ever seen before. The ground shook, and my microscope fell from my hands. I began chasing after God, and I've never been the same.
It happened again when I was in college, buried in grades and ambition and papers to write. I wandered into a grimy, pitiful Appalachian Headstart center. And there the innocent blue eyes of a three-year-old pierced my heart. Those eyes were so clear, so imploring, so wise, that I saw all the suffering of the world in them. I saw God's Light in them. I saw the truth in them. And I saw that children matter. All children. And my world shook, and I slid down the mountain, never again free from the responsibility that that truth laid upon my heart.
My prayers for our Rite 13 celebrities today—and for us all—are lives filled with such glimpses of God's Light. Light that changes us, that fills us with love, and that throws us down the mountain, arms open in surrender, feet following Jesus on the Way.

[1] See Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, 3

[2] Ibid, 6.
[3] Malcom Guite, "Transfiguration," https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/4-august/comment/columnists/poet-s-corner

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Have we driven God out of the words?

          Epiphany 2B

          1 Samuel 3:1-20

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 I love to tell the story of Samuel in Sunday School and Children's Chapel. Our youngest members don't seem to have any trouble relating to it. My mother, a lifelong kindergarten Sunday School teacher, had a favorite story about this lesson. A 5-year-old boy in her class once blurted out excitedly, "I heard God's voice, too, last night!" When asked what God said to him, the child, named Gray, proclaimed with love, mystery and awe in his voice, "God said 'G-r-a-y …. G-r-a-y….'" My mother especially loved to remind the boy of that story when he was a grown-up church member, much too serious for such things.
For us older folks, if only it were that simple to hear God's voice, especially in Scripture, the "word of the Lord."  Just this Monday, I slumped in my chair and grumbled to a friend, "God has gone out of the words!" Before the world got to be so crazy, it used to be easier to sit with Scripture. It used to be easier to hear the familiar, comforting words: salvation, hope, justice, mercy. I would meet the beloved characters—Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Mary his mother, the bumbling disciples—and they would be like old childhood friends. These days, however, I feel as if the hate-filled world has stuck a pin in these precious, holy words. It has popped them like a balloon—I feel God's Spirit drifting away, and the words falling hollow to the ground, limp and shriveled artifacts. I feel as if some of our fellow Christians are using the beloved words to promote hatred and injustice, day after day after day. And the rest of us are trampling the shreds of the words underfoot, ignoring them in our rush to get about our daily business. Why read the Bible when so much truth has been sucked from its words? How do we hear the voice of our God in these troubled times?
          After my sadness on Monday, I stared in amazement on Tuesday when I picked up the lectionary and read the story of Samuel. I almost fell to my knees.
          "The word of the Lord was rare in those days," the lesson begins, as if the story were reading my mind. This is the only time in the Hebrew Bible that this phrase is used. The story is set during a deeply troubled time in the land of Israel. Change is shaking the old, trusted foundations. The story takes place when the familiar government by judges is about to give way to the unknown perils of monarchy. In the meantime, chaos reigns. Eli, the trusted high priest, is old and failing. His sons have filled the land with corruption and shame and greed as he sits idly by, doing nothing to stop them.
 As the story begins, night shrouds God's holy temple in darkness. Eli is blind, lying helpless in his bed, unable to provide God's vision and hope to the people. Samuel is the little boy who has been given into the care of the temple by his mother Hannah. In this story, he's still young. He's just an apprentice--a teenage acolyte, perhaps, wondering when on earth to close the gates and chafing under the weight of obscure rituals and sweaty robes. He must feel the empty darkness of the temple and the troubles of the land, even if he doesn't understand them. Even though he sleeps in the heart of his religion's holiest place, he knows little of God.
          "God has gone out of the words," Eli must have sighed from his bed. "What's the point?" Samuel must have been wondering in the darkness.
But wait! It wasn't all darkness and gloom. The text says that "the lamp of God had not gone out." Even in the darkness, God's light is burning beside Eli in his blindness. And God's voice is calling young Samuel's name. Over and over again. Despite his youth and his misunderstanding. The Word of God keeps calling.
          When I sit in church, or when I pick up the bible to read, I'm usually like Samuel. I announce proudly to myself: "Here I am! Look at me, here in church! Look at me, reading Scripture! Aren't you proud of me, everyone? Teach me something, God! Move me! I'm waiting! Make it quick, because I have a lot to do today!"
I expect something to happen between me and God, one on one. I think that God is supposed to enter the words for me and bring them to life. But that's not the way it works in today's lesson, is it? Samuel needs Eli's wisdom before he can recognize God's voice. Eli explains to Samuel that obedience alone isn't enough. We have to open ourselves and listen with patience and expectancy for what God has to say. We all need the wisdom and support of other human beings in our faith journeys. The old and the young need one another. The strong and the weak need one another. The educated and the innocent need one another. Because God speaks to us all.
As a matter of fact, do you know why we Episcopalians read so many lessons as part of our Eucharist? It's because we believe that Jesus comes to us in Scripture as the Body of Christ, all together, just as he comes to us in the bread and wine. We surround ourselves with the voices of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the prayers of the ancient psalmists, with the admonitions of the early Christian letter-writers, and with the good news of the Gospels. We take all of these varied, swirling, sometimes confusing voices, and we wait together for God to appear in our midst through those words. Instead of "the Word of the Lord," perhaps we should end each reading in the service with the words, "Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening."
          But there's another important piece. Our lectionary leaves out the end of this story—an end that we need to hear. When Samuel finally listens—really listens—to the voice of God calling him in the night, the word that he receives is not one of cozy comfort. When Samuel opens himself to God's word, God gives him a hard task. A task that is going to change him forever. God tells him it is up to him to stand up to his mentor Eli. He's told to proclaim drastic change, to tell Eli that God is going to take away the power and authority that Eli and his sons have misused. Who wants to tell his boss that she's fired? Who wants to stand up to power and oppose it? We all know how dangerous that is. Look what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr, whom we celebrate tomorrow.
          When God calls me in the night, I'm hoping to be comforted, not changed and challenged. I don't want God's voice to turn my world upside down. The most dreaded voice for a mother to hear in the night is that of her crying child. "Mama, Mama, Mama," it whispers in her ear, breath hot against her cheek. "Mama, mama, my tummy hurts bad." All parents know that this is the beginning of a sleepless night, a big disruption in plans, and a lot of laundry. It is a voice that inspires a loud "Nooooo!" in your heart and a deep desire to hide under the covers. But it's a voice that you can't deny or refuse; it's a voice that makes you who you are—a loving parent.
          That's what God's true voice offers us—to make us who we are meant to be: God's responsible and loving presence in the world. As Rowan Williams says, the Word of God that speaks to us in Scripture doesn't call us to "jot down ideas and think about them." God speaks our names in order to transform us, to make us see and live in the world in a new way.[1] Scripture is a summons, a voice in the night. It's an invitation to be part of Christ's Body acting in the world.[2] It gathers us and forms us around the Altar of sacrifice. It asks us to translate what we hear into courageous, self-giving action, into shared dependence on God alone.
When the world rejects foreigners and turns its back on the marginalized, God's Word invites us to embody love for the stranger. When the world destroys God's creatures in a greedy search for riches, God's Word invites us to work to "preserve and serve" creation, instead. When the world exploits the poor and rewards those who are number one, God's Word invites us to live in such a way that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God's invitation is also a promise. At the end of our reading, Samuel becomes a prophet. God is with him and lets "none of his words fall to the ground." So shall it be with us, if we open ourselves as a community to hear God's call. God never leaves the words. As Christ's Body, we are "in the words," with Christ, and will never be forsaken.

[1] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 4.
[2] Ibid., Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 44.