Sunday, May 25, 2014

not alone

Easter 6, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). When I first read that sentence while preparing for my sermon, I must admit that I took a big gulp. I made a mental list of all the things I had done and left undone this week, remembered the times when I could have been more compassionate or worked harder or listened better. How I should have prayed more and eaten better and exercised and gotten more sleep. 

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus is much more demanding than in other gospels. If you’re a perfectionist like I am, that responsibility can be intimidating. We have this idea that we have to be perfect before we can be considered a leader or a professional or sometimes even before we can be a “good” Christian. But placed against a model of perfection we always fall short. A lot of the time I am so far away from this ideal that it is embarrassing, and I get discouraged. 

Sometimes you have to go away somewhere to put things back into focus. Two weeks ago I left for a CREDO conference—you may remember that Fr. Chris helped lead some of these conferences. I journeyed down to Fairhope, Alabama with 24 other recently ordained clergy. We had 8 leaders who helped mentor us in financial, vocational, leadership, physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects. Our days were filled with prayer, plenary sessions, delicious food, and honest conversations about our lives and calling as ordained leaders in the Church. More than anything, I loved being with others who were in similar situations and remembering that I was not alone in this calling. 

At the end of the conference each one of us wrote down our Rule of Life, a way of structuring our lives to intentionally put God at the center. One of the suggestions for crafting the Rule of Life was to look at our lives in three sections: our relationships with God, with our families, and with others. In each section, we examined what our needs were and then developed practices to address those needs. But instead of just being like another set of New Year’s resolutions, we were told to write down who was going to help hold us accountable for doing these practices. Almost 100% of the time, we cannot achieve things completely on our own. We have been shaped—in ways both good and bad—shaped by the experiences we have had and the people we have met. We cannot achieve things truly on our own, but rely on the support of others: family, friends, leaders, and mentors.

We hold each other accountable here at St. George’s, too. Now, that doesn’t mean we have free reign to criticize every single thing that someone does, but we instead try our best to gently encourage each other along the way. Being a Christian is hard work! We are to love each other—even, and perhaps especially, the people who get on our nerves. We are to love the world, acknowledging the beauty despite examples of hatred and violence. We are to love God, even when things go wrong and we feel like God either can’t hear or just isn’t listening to us. These aren’t easy tasks we are called to, but in today’s Gospel Jesus promises that after he dies we will not be left alone: "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (v. 18). We have an Advocate in addition to Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit, who regularly speaks through others.  

Every day is a new opportunity to reorient ourselves to God. Every day is a new opportunity to support each other on our journeys. To encourage you on your journey, I leave you with a prayer written by Thomas Merton, Catholic monk and mystic. Merton reminds us that it not about doing things perfectly that matters, but about attempting to do them in the first place" 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude). Amen.

image found here


Sunday, May 11, 2014

goodness and mercy shall chase me

Easter 4, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me…” (Psalm 23:4). Amen.

Psalm 23 is the most recognizable psalm—and I would venture to say piece of scripture—in the Bible. People have found comfort in these words for centuries, which is why I think the psalm is so often used with patients in hospitals and at funerals (but it might also be because it’s short and easy to memorize). 

The Psaltery is a collection of musical poetry written over a span of 600 years, from the time of King Solomon around 950 B.C. to the years following the Exile in 350 B.C. Martin Luther called the Psalms a “little Bible” because they contain theology, history, drama…a little bit of everything! The psalms come in five forms, the most common of which is the lament. Some of the psalms are attributed to King David, but most of them, like Psalm 23, were written during the time of Exile. 

The Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians around 600 B.C. Most of them were sent away from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon, where they were forced to assimilate into Babylonian culture. Kept in exile away from their homeland for about 60 years, it was difficult for the Israelites to maintain their faith and their cultural identity as God’s chosen people. Many of them felt that the Exile was God’s way of punishing them for the sins they had committed. 

While most of the psalms, especially ones from the time of Exile, are laments, mourning loss, feeling betrayed and hurt, and wondering where the heck God is in all of it, today’s psalm is different. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust. The author is saying that even though our life may take us through places of pain and suffering, that we do not journey on this path alone; “I shall fear no evil; for you are with me” the psalmist asserts (v. 4). God is with us, guiding us “along right pathways” (v. 3). When we become weary of our suffering, God “leads [us] beside still waters” and “revives [our] soul[s],” keeping us nourished for the journey (v. 2, 3).

And when the day comes for us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will finally realize that death is just that; a shadow. Death only has the appearance of a place; it is not our final destination. God will lead us through that valley and to a great banquet hall, where we will be treated like royalty.

There’s a story I once heard about a man who dreams that he dies and finds himself in a long hallway. He comes to a door marked hell and is about to pass it by when he hears noises behind it. Unable to stop his curiosity, he opens the door and peeks in. Inside the room is a long table filled with the most scrumptious food: fresh fruit and vegetables, dishes just out of the oven with steam rising from them, all the best desserts…the smell is tantalizing and his stomach begins to rumble. He begins to wonder why exactly the door is marked hell but then he notices that there are people sitting around the table, and all of them are starving. The food is right in front of them, just waiting to be eaten, but they can’t eat because they have long spoons connected to their arms; they are unable to feed themselves because they can’t bring the spoons up to their mouths. 

Disturbed, the man closes the door and continues to walk down the hallway. He approaches another door and sees that it is marked heaven. Excited about what lies beyond the door, he opens it. The man is surprised to find that the room looks exactly like the other one. A scrumptious feast spread on a long table, with people all around. The people in this room also have long spoons connected to their arms, but this time none of them are starving. What is the difference?

In the room marked hell, everyone is thinking only of themselves, trying futilely to bring food into their own mouths. But in the room marked heaven, the people realize that they can use the long spoons to feed each other, which means that everyone gets as much as they need. 

You might be wondering why I decided to bring up this story. Did you notice in the psalm that God spreads a table before the psalmist “in the presence of those who trouble [him]” (v. 5)? I used to always think that this passage meant that all the people who had ever hurt the psalmist in one way or another would be standing on the floor below, watching the psalmist gorge himself on all that delicious food. “'My cup is running over' but you don’t even have a cup, nah nah nah nah nah nah (v. 5). 

A few years ago I was reading Psalm 23 slowly as part of a retreat exercise, and I realized that the people who troubled the psalmist aren’t standing in front of the table, they are seated at it! There is a place for everyone at the table, including the people who have hurt us, who we would consider to be our enemies. There is a place for them to sit—I can’t attest to whether or not there will be long spoons, but we will have the opportunity to feed them and be fed by their presence. The amazing thing about the kingdom of heaven is that all of our troubles—all of our fights and conflicts and pain and suffering—will be over. We will come to know the fullness of God’s love. 

We are all one in God’s eyes, each one of us a beloved child of God, loved despite our faults and doubts. In the final verse, the psalmist writes, “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (v. 6). “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me” (v. 6). The word we translate as follow here doesn’t mean follow in the sense of tagging along behind like a puppy or a little sister. It means to chase, to pursue, like police pursue criminals or like our enemies chase after us. God is actively seeking each one of us out, pursuing us, desperately attempting to make us aware of God’s goodness and mercy.  


As we leave here today to go out into the amazing, beautiful, and sometimes terrifying world, remember that God is seeking us out. We do not walk this path alone; God is right there with us. And when our day comes, we know that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6). Alleluia!

image found here


Sunday, May 4, 2014

recognition

Easter 3, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus is much beloved and almost as famous as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, all three stories which are only found in the Gospel according to Luke. Two followers of Jesus, still in shock over his gruesome death just two days before, are walking along a road when Jesus meets them. They don’t recognize him. Why does no one ever recognize Jesus right away? Does he look different? Has he changed so drastically that he no longer looks the way he once did? Or is it just that no one is expecting him to be around anymore, so they don’t look at him the same way? Whatever the reason, they do not recognize Christ.

We, too, fail to recognize Christ in our midst. Events this week have reaffirmed that racism is alive and well in our country. But this should not come as a surprise to us. As one sports commentator explained in the case of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, it is almost laughable that the racist comments he made to his girlfriend has triggered such a reaction. While I don’t think that his punishment is undeserved, I’m left wondering, “Why now?” Where was the outrage years ago when he was denying African Americans and Hispanics housing and evicting those already in his buildings? If it took us this long to get angry, then we have failed to see Christ in our midst. 

Some of you may have seen the video I posted on the parish Facebook page. The New York Rescue Mission is dedicated to helping the homeless of New York. In their video, they dress people as if they are homeless and then place them in the path of family members and loved ones. They record the unsuspecting family members and loved ones walking down the street to see what their reaction might be. Not one of them recognizes the fake homeless people; they all walk past after a mere glance in their direction. The family members are then shown the video tape and are told about the experiment. The shock of recognition on their faces is enough for us to see that they have been deeply moved, some even to tears. If you saw one of your loved ones on the street, how would you react? Would you even notice, or would you walk past them, thinking it’s not your problem? 

The disciples on the road to Emmaus are shocked that the man they meet has not heard the news about Jesus, but the man surprises them by interpreting things about Jesus throughout scripture. After the three of them get to a village, Jesus makes as if he’s going ahead, but the disciples invite him to stay with them. They sit down to supper and Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread, and hands it to them. They are shocked when they recognize Jesus, who immediately disappears. What is it that makes them finally figure out that it’s him? Perhaps when he lifts his hands in thanksgiving, they see the marks of the nails in his hands, and that triggers their memories. 

What the Gospel account is trying to tell us is that we need to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet. The person living on the street as well as your millionaire neighbor. The person behind the register at McDonald’s as well as the person who cuts you off in traffic. The people living on food stamps as well as the hungry in other countries. As long as poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, and discrimination still exist, we are not recognizing Christ within each other. 

So how do we change the cycle? I think we begin by changing the way we interact with one another. If we take the time to get to know people, really know them, to the point where we can see their scars, then we can recognize the Christ within them. Everyone has scars, and we don’t always have access to them, but even knowing that everyone is walking around with scars helps us to recognize their humanity.  

When I got to seminary I realized that most, if not all, of my classmates had experienced pain and suffering in one form or another at some point in their lives. In church they found a community that supported them and welcomed them with open arms, and the love they found there helped them to begin the process of healing. 

Now I’m not completely na├»ve; I know that every community comes with its difficulties, and St. George’s is no exception. But even if we disagree on who to vote for, or which causes to support, or the best way to handle a problem, at the end of the day, we are all invited to the table. Remember the saying, “you are what you eat”? The same goes for Communion. When we come to the altar rail and receive the body and blood of Christ, we ourselves become the Body of Christ. And this spiritual food nourishes us for what lies beyond these doors. 

As you leave here today, take a look around you at the people you meet; both the people you know and those you don’t know, the ones you like and the ones who are harder to like. Try to see Christ within them. We are all on this journey together; be gentle with one another. Get to know your fellow travelers and recognize that Christ dwells in each and every one of them, and also in you. 

"Supper at Emmaus" by He Qi
image found here