Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 3

The Gospels are not the same.  Even the ones that look so much alike and are thus called the "synoptics" have interesting differences. Matthew's gospel begins full of dreams and visions directing Jesus' adoptive father Joseph where to go and when to move. Luke's gospel begins the story through Mary's experiences. Both get us to a humble birth acknowledged by stars and celestial choirs.

 Mark seems to be the earthiest and is for sure the one without birth narrative but just take a look at how Jesus displays his power and you have nearly as much of an reality of cosmic proportions as found in the others' beginnings.

The fourth out does the other 3 gospels without question. The prologue, John 1:1-18 is as cosmic and grand and expansive as any calmed storm or multiplication of food, any angel choir or guiding star.

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

That scale, that dimensionality is maintained throughout John's gospel.  Jesus is always as big as the Word such that John can consistently portray the relationship Jesus has with God as no less than Father and Son, as the two being One.

Together with Mark's outlining, Matthew and Luke show us a Jesus becoming as "big" as God, big enough to sit at His right hand in heaven.  So that there is a determination and authority that grows as the team approaches Jerusalem.

In the fourth gospel that proximity and measure has been seen-to before any starlit birth, or prodigious temple lingering or descent into the Jordan to be baptized by John; before any miracle or argument or prayer.

The connection that Jesus has when he takes, breaks and blesses the bread in the upper room, when he prays from Gethsemene, whenever we hear him talk about being "the way, the truth, and the life," is always the same size and always in oneness with God.

According to John, only Jesus as the Word dwelling among us is connected like Jesus is connected.  Using the perspective of the fourth gospel you could say that only He practices true "religion."

Here's the Easter message from the point of that oneness.  Even in the fourth gospel Jesus hangs on a cross and dies.  In other words, the connection he shares with us as "the human one" is just as real. So what God raises is not just God's self or Son, it is all humanity, all creation, all light, all dwelling, all connections.

Easter is not just the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead, it is the perfection of our religion, our connection with God.  When God raised Jesus we all became connected in a way like no other.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 2

There are lots of ways to name when people come together in worship: churches, families, gatherings, assemblies, communions, parishes, dioceses, conventions, temples, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, monasteries, convents, basilicas, cathedrals, meeting houses, daoguans, candis.  And those are many of the names we use when worship is in one way or another "institutionalized."

I used to meet my friend Rev. Sam Buice at the Duncan Bridge over the Chattahoochee, where he had parked his truck and drive him to where Blue Creek Rd. crossed over the same Chattahoochee before he would climb into his kayak and paddle his way down stream.

The last thing we'd do before his embarking was open our prayerbooks to read Morning Prayer together.  A little less institutionalized, especially if you need a building for it to count, but adequately structured to be on the above list.

These types of gatherings often have to be understood by some under the "spiritual but not religious" banner exactly because the institutional pieces are so cumbersome or pressing.  Most everyone, even those of us who make a living by way of and for the institutional church go alone to the woods in some way but can still share the experience with others.

Yes, many of us have a practice of private devotions, private prayers, private meditation but we are also ready to share from those sources of strength and refreshment.  Indeed, many of us cannot wait to talk about our experiences from in and around those privacies.

In other words, connections matter.  Just like the word religion means our being tied back to God, our individual, personal, spiritual epiphanies and prayers urge us to be with others, to share, to celebrate.

It happens enough to warrant mention that lots of spirituality suffers the absence of others.  Churches, temples, daoguns are a hedge that the institutionalizing grows against the idiosyncrasies we create when we keep our spirits to ourselves.

So I have little problem with the recent FaceBook meme that preferred thinking about God while kayaking over being in church yet thinking about kayaking.

Based on the experience my daughter and I had paddling and double portaging the Oconee between Simonton Bridge and the NFS boat ramp near Hwy 15 and Ward Road north of Greensboro I'd say for several reasons God was mentioned more than enough.

Good or bad, it was more of a religious experience than we intended.  In the end the best part of our "adventure" was what we shared, how we enjoyed and struggled together and still now how we are connected in a way we were not the day before.

I hope our religion has us saying the same about our Advent connections.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Religion is to be Connected

Episcopal parishes are named in a wide variety of manners and customs.  Some are given the name of a saint because the date of their founding coincides with that particular saint's commemoration.

Others are affiliated with particular saints because of some ethnic or historical connection.  Some take the first name on the list "Christ" like our kindred in Savannah, St. Simon's (ironic?), Kennesaw, Norcross, Augusta, Cordele, St. Mary's (?), Dublin, and Valdosta. Are there others?

Along with the "Christ churches" are those using one of the other titles bestowed on Jesus: Immanuel, Redeemer, [Our] Savior, King, [Christus] Victor, and Good Shepherd.  There are others.

Advent falls into yet another category that uses significant events or actions of God in Christ to which to pay tribute.  Include with us Epiphany, Nativity, Resurrection, Atonement, or Incarnation.

There are other smaller groups, for instance those relying on some connection to or an event in the life of St. Mary, the Virgin; Assumption, Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady, Holy Family.  There are others also.

Also worth noting are those parishes named after the Trinity or some member of the Trinity in particular the third person: Holy Spirit, Holy Comforter. There are also others here.

Lots of ways to name Episcopal parishes and all of them expressions of connection.  By way of "All Saints (yet another name!) we are connected to a long history of exemplary witness in leadership, in scholarship, in missions, and in martyrdom.

By way of its name, our parish is connected to an expression of hope and memory, to an admission to judgement and the acceptance of redemption, to a yearning for completion and reward and to an expectation that even more is soon to happen in our connections with God.

This past Easter Sunday and the days that follow it are the best expression I know of how connected we are to each other and to those before us and to those after us.

Not only have we been joined by some of our number who seldom attend, we have seen extended families filling pews with children and siblings living far away.  Even the way the church fills and forces us to sit closer to each other implies that connection.

Easter is the day that all these connections need to start.  Without Easter there wouldn't be any saints, any notable attributes, any remarkable Marian moments,  any attention on God's sustaining us with a comforting spiritual presence.

Connected is what the church hopes to be.  Connected with God is what the word religion means.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The "Ayes" of the Beholder

I love the way this parish "does Easter."  I especially love how magnificent the flowers have been, rising to heights named in our Sunday gradual psalm as the "horns of the altar." Wow!  What beauty we are given to enjoy!

There's a beauty in all these resurrection events that are the stuff of our Sundays up to Pentecost.  If Jesus had really been there to play by the accepted rules of engagement -- think Peter's sword wielding or Judas' hand forcing or even worse the crowd's vehemence in shouting back to Pilate -- he would have had and he did have every reason to stand on the temple steps with his arms akimbo and spit while saying "I told you so."

The beauty is that he does nothing like that at all.  Instead he stays close to his disciples in their confusion and keeps doing the very same things he was doing before he died.

Look at that moment in Emmaus  "When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight." (Luke 24:30-31 RSV)

Do I need to recall the feeding of the 5000 for you?  Or perhaps your remember the upper room.
took, blessed, broke; took, blessed, broke; took, blessed, broke.

I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus just keeps being Jesus, glorified for sure but still the one who faithfully led and taught and healed and fed.

His leadership is toward a total reorientation of sacrifice,  His teaching is that love is vehicle of God's blessing.  His healing restores those society had excluded.  His feeding is with bread taken, blessed and broken.

I have advocated for our church family to act like we've been raised with Jesus, to take on the posture of belief before we are even able to fully believe, to receive the gift of God's making us worthy.  I have advocated for these things because there is a magnificent beauty in us that we would otherwise squeeze down, cover in shame, and sink into self pity.

I get it that we do not deserve the gift of resurrection.  I don't get that we keep acting like the only way for us to enjoy it is to be physically terminated.  Like my favorite line from Bishop Alexander, "why do we keep acting like the jury is still out?"

Instead, let's allow and behold Jesus the beauty his heart desires, the beauty of his fulfilling sacrifice, the beauty of his consistent presence as one who takes, blesses and breaks.

As we stand to pray and celebrate on these Sundays we can let Jesus take us.  Our standing honors his intent by heading the right direction.  We can let Jesus bless us with a presence that calls us friends, brothers, sisters, beloved, worthy.  We can let Jesus break us to become more than we can imagine doing or becoming on our own.

Alleluia! Christ IS risen! The Lord IS risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 5

One of the regular resources I use in sermon preparation is the Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. Paul Nuechterlein, recently retired ELCA Lutheran pastor manages this site to provide weekly commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for each Sunday's worship.

Directly or indirectly, contributors to the site honor the work of Rene Girard, d. Nov. 4, 2015.  Girard was first an anthropologist then a commentator on ancient literature in the Bible.

His fundamental teaching was that humans learn first and foremost by imitation.  Think "monkey see, monkey do."  What humans in particular desire and therefore choose to imitate and join are more often than not the actions of those in power over them.

Aptly, though with a cynical edge this theory describes the environs of first century Jerusalem and the days leading to the crucifixion.  Jesus is the scapegoat presented and sacrificed by the powers that be, both Roman and Jewish to maintain the status quo.

The ultimate use of power is to preserve power.  So when Judas forces Jesus' hand by his betrayal in the garden he is acting on his mistaken belief that the Messiah will exercise power just like but against Rome.

Instead, Jesus lays down his life and refuses by his silence to be the scapegoat that the powers need him to be.  In his resurrection he redirects the mimetic desire of those expecting a messiah to "win" and then the good news is born in the hearts and minds of his followers.

Several contributors to "Reflections" focus on the role that those under power play to prop up the status quo and imitate power.  When the Pharisees challenge Jesus' dining with "tax collectors and sinners"(Luke 15) or when Judas in Bethany criticizes Mary for wasting pure nard to perfume Jesus's feet in last Sunday's reading (John 12) they are imitating those in power and propping up a Jewish caste system that imitates the Roman one subjecting them.

The Pharisees challenges and Judas' questions are pretenses.  Neither have absolute power but whatever power they can pretend to exercise they will.  We know this in our day and time when we see those who have been bullied become the bully or dads who were spanked spanking or others decrying the ways in which they are deprived of their own pretensions.  Monkey see, monkey do.

This week in Growing a Rule of Life has been a lesson for me that my life in prayer and devotion needn't imitate or attempt a kind of "power over."  My old Lenten practice was to do exactly that.  To take control or attain mastery over some action or behavior. I would start on Ash Wednesday and chip away for 40 days until I was expert in doing or not doing .

As if power over anything was His goal.  As if mastery was what God asks even of me.  As if heaven were more available because we've made fewer mistakes or have become habituated to doing some good thing.

We should all be letting go of our privileges and titles.  We should all be reexamining our presumptions to favored status or to being offended.  Last Sunday, St. Paul counted all his honors as rubbish for becoming like Christ in his death. (Philippians 3)

This Palm Sunday we will instead try to imitate one whom we say triumphs as he entered Jerusalem already in obedience to his own dying.  Some irony here, no? Jesus intentionally offended the powerful by mounting that donkey and drawing a crowd who must have known who they were mocking in their hosannas.

We shouldn't be so quick to impose an understanding informed by a moment yet to be narrated for us.  That he was raised was not known by anyone along that parade route.  God meant something very different for the messiah than "Jewish champion" or "bully to end all bullies."

But right now the lesson is to suffer one last time in a system that uses even us to prop itself up.  "Power over" is being called out and it still will try to have the last say.

Next week we can think about how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus expose the pretense, our pretense.  No more scapegoats to prop up power.  No more caste systems.  No more being offended or avoiding offense.

Until then we should check our own assumptions and name the collusion our mimetic desire finds us practicing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 4

Over a year ago I wrote a series of these "blurbs" about the intersection between sabbaths and Sundays.

One of the properties of sabbath that is often lost on Sundays -- especially as Christians observe them -- is silence.  Few worship workshops, church growth seminars, church convention vendor booths or diocesan guidelines regard silence as something on which to build or grow.

A quick review of the church supply catalogues and other resources that arrive and beckon incessantly will demonstrate the point just as well.  They offer us the latest in microphones and speakers but NO sound proofing materials.  We are encouraged to upgrade to the newest in multilevel membership tracking software but nothing to promote meditation or mindfulness. We are bedazzled with elegant and ornate vestments, sterling vessels and gilded fixtures with hardly a wooden candle stick or processional cross to consider.  We vote on purpose statements and slogans galore but say nothing about "communicants in good standing" being determined by how well they maintain silence.

I get it that this silence thing is not an easy way to build a church.  You need all those other elements and practices just as much.  Unfortunately other than the mandates on Ash Wednesday just before the imposition of ashes, during the entrance and prayers of Good Friday or when the BCP says "A period of silence is kept" following the breaking of the bread in holy communion most of what we establish is a permissive or suggestive practice of silence.  Indeed, no word accompanies the word "silence" in the BCP more than the word "may."

So how do we build with silence?

One answer is implied at least and mentioned often in the Growing a Rule of Life curriculum.

When we are led to work through the delayed gratification of not yet fashioning a rule of life more than four weeks into our study but instead have shared our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, our relationships with others and our relationship with God we are implying a silence.

It is a way to say to those of us who would prefer a beginner's kit to hit the ground running, that we must first survey as much of the world in which our rule will be practiced and take the time to create a space, one as clear as can be of obstruction and distraction.

The gardening metaphor is ideal for this task.  It recalls our actions on the Tuesday before we begin our Lenten journey.  Then we "shrived" to rid our spiritual pantries of those wasteful and spoiled things we have accreted and stored in darkness.

Shrove Tuesday may be busy but by being a first round of weeding it sets the stage for silence.  Gone in a rush of intentional over-exposure are the fats and sugars, the toys and glitter that would litter or distract us.

I love how we have been led by our Cowley brothers in this study.  As much by what they have not said as what they have said.  As much by what we have not yet done as we have done.  They have given us so much but they have not given it all or promised too much.  We still have more to do, to name, to imagine, to practice.

But under all of this is a silence.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 3

I’ve learned a bunch in the last week about this thing called Lent and especially how what I’ve called work is only part of Growing a Rule of Life.

Our group conversations have deeply considered what we are calling the “physicality of prayer.”  Our bodies are not simply containers for a spirit to abide temporarily but are just as much actors in the drama of spiritual growth.  Our bodies kneel, our bodies breathe, our bodies rest, our bodies move in prayer, in pain, in bliss, in worry, in love.

Now I’m realizing that the way in which we construct our rule must be more than a set of directions.  More than just foot prints on the floor implying a dance to be learned.  St. Paul said, “without love I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.”  Without love my rule sinks into self interest and social climbing.

One of the ways love is expressed is in how we aspire through our lives toward meaning, toward mercy, toward others. 

I’ve been listening to this song and have heard in it a rule of life that is not simply a set of directions but a pronouncement of where I believe love can take me. 

This is not exactly what our Cowley brothers are guiding us to construct but there is plenty in this song for us to include or name in our own ways in our rules. There is whimsy, there is truth, there is aspiration.  There is love.

I want to make it out alive never think about looking back.
I want to drive like hell when I steal the Devil's Cadillac.
I want to take that old El Dorado down a dirt road.
with How I Made It Over playing on the radio. 
I want to be solid as the earth and cool like the night air.
I want to believe even though I know life don't play fair.
I want to wear my heart on my sleeve but be tough when I have to.
I want to dust off the stars and hang them on the wall for you. 
I want to ask all the questions with answers we'll never know.
I want to find my faith in records from long ago.
I want to set fear on fire and give dreaming a fair shot.
and never give up whether anybody cares or not. 
 John Moreland

PS  Thanks Brian Easton