Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Without a Net: Gliding Through the Garden of Gethsemane

Luke 22:39-46
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

When I was fourteen, after weeks of training on the ground and in the air, I took my first solo flight in a sailplane. I was so scared, my heart was beating in my ears and my throat was closing.  I could barely squeak out to my instructor as he walked away and left me with the plane.  “Wait!” I said. “WAIT!”

He turned and looked at me and said, “I’m getting it.”

When he came back he had with him these two big metal pins that weighted the front of the aircraft so that a slight 14 year old girl wouldn’t be flying with her nose tipping up the whole time.

The tow-plane hooked on, I was swept up into the air and I watched in terror, my hands shaking violently, for the indication to release and to glide, free of any propulsion, by myself, alone in the cockpit.  And then I pulled the release. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. I was alone, in charge of my fate for the first time in my life. 

As a child with undiagnosed ADD, I had struggled in school profoundly and even more so in life.  I never knew where I was supposed to be or got there with everything I needed. I understood every word that was spoken to me, but I never ever knew what people meant.  And my poor impulse control imperiled more than my own life on more than one occasion.  I was the bane of my hard-working mother’s existence and a complete contradiction to my brilliant father’s theory of genetics.  I was a danger to myself and others and the family whispered the words “group-home” on more than one occasion. I was – and am – a person whose brain, un-medicated and unmitigated – is not her friend.

But here I was, after weeks of confusion and fear, intimidated by my instructors and sure of their derision, never the less, alone in the cockpit of an aircraft, entrusted with my own life, this valuable plane and the safety of people on the ground. And I thought, “What the hell are my parents thinking letting me do this?”

Fast forward thirty four years. I’m now a single mother, working full time for the first time in seventeen years. I have a house to maintain and utilities to pay.  I have two dogs who need almost constant supervision to keep from peeing on or chewing everything in said house.  And three children – all of whom were more poised and mature in the cradle than I was at 14- whose psyches are impacted (according to the teenager) by every single microscopic action I take (hence the scrutiny).  I have to get people to things, and I have to coach, train, discipline, encourage, console and, with frightening frequency, cuss out, people whom I love. I have to remember, I have to complete, I have to get up off my ass and weed when I want to read, and I have to sit down all alone on the couch in the evening and sort it all out by myself.  I am, once again, alone in the cockpit, entrusted with the stewardship and safety of more than I could have imagined possible. 

In a sailplane you have a limited number of stimuli to process.  You have an airspeed indicator and an altimeter and a false horizon and a lift/drag ratio meter. There is also something called a “yaw string.” This was my best friend when I was flying.  It was a tiny little piece of yellow yarn stuck to the outside of the cockpit right in front of you that was buffeted and tossed against the windscreen as you flew.  It told you whether you were flying efficiently: if the wind was passing over your wings in the most efficient way, whether your attitude to the ground and the wind around you (your pitch and your yaw) was correct for the kind of flying you were doing.  Whether you were in a turn or pulling up into a deliberate stall, whether you were thermal-ling, diving, towing or landing, that yaw string told you that you were in balance as you did it. A yaw string is also not an instrument in the formal sense, it’s not a gauge drawing on information it is picking up from a meter on your rudder or your wing.  It’s a little piece of fiber pushed by the wind. That’s all.
I have a yaw string on my minivan.

There is no sound when you are flying (without a radio, I used to fly without a radio whenever possible) but the wind over your cockpit, though that can be quite loud.  Your hands and feet are in place, you are strapped in somewhat ruthlessly and there is no looking around more than 180 degrees – plus not down, unless you’re turning, you can’t look down very well.  So there is only up.  There are clouds, which are my favorite things in the entire universe because they tell you everything you need to know.  They tell you where the wind is coming from.  They tell you where there will be an updraft, a “thermal” which you can use to keep yourself in the air without power. They tell you if it is going to rain or that there will be a change in the weather.  They tell you where something starts and something else end. Clouds tell you everything you need to know and they are almost always gorgeous.

So you stay in the sky in a sailplane by finding places, invisible columns of air, that rise up from the ground, usually because of heat on the ground.  These are called “thermals” and the process of sweeping around in a turn within these columns of air – as you have seen condors and birds of prey sometimes do – is called “thermalling.” When you wish to rise, you locate a thermal and you sweep around in a large, graceful turn inside of it. Your long, wide wings are caught by the air and you are swept up. You can’t see a thermal, they are entirely invisible.  You can guess where one is: if you see a bird thermalling, if the ground is dark on a sunny day (soybean field often make thermals), and under a cumulo stratus cloud. These clouds with tall white puffy tops and flat bottoms indicate the presence of a thermal.  When they line up along a weather front you can glide for hundreds of miles without losing altitude.  This is called, a “cloud street.” Great, right?

What the heck does this have to do with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?

I think that being alone, or feeling alone, in this mortal life, is a visit to the garden of Gethsemane. Even if you have companions along the way, close, bosom friends, they will sometimes sleep. They are mortal, they must sometimes sleep.  And, we all now it’s true, sometimes when we need them the most they are afraid of what will be asked of them and they are asleep when we need them to be wakeful. And in those moments, we are profoundly, cosmically, and terrifyingly alone. You are strapped in place by the forces of your life and livelihood.  Your hands and feet must be where they are to keep things going. You have limited visibility. And you can’t see what the hell is keeping you afloat. You’re doing it all by the seat of your pants.

When I was 14 and flying for the first time, I released the tow-plane, I heard the thump of the hook and saw the rope fall away and for a few seconds - seconds I sometimes relive in my dreams, I sat in that cockpit and screamed like a babysitter in a horror movie.  I took at least two full breaths and kept screaming. 

And then my brain clicked off. And my gut clicked on.

That’s how we get through the garden of Gethsemane.  When we can’t see what is holding us up, we look for signs of it, for thermalling birds, friendly smiles and “pokes” on Facebook.  When we can’t see anywhere but up, we can learn to read the sky, we can see places where we will be held up or lifted up.  When the lift/drag meter is pulling way south, we can see our way clear to a cloud street and that is all we need.  Dawn comes, it always comes. There is always the moment when you land safely.  But getting through the night in Gethsemane is about going from one thermal to the next.

It is, in fact, all about the yaw string. If you are flying efficiently, you’ll get the most distance on your lift, you won’t slip or slide out of latitude, you won’t accidently roll or pull up too tight and stall.  You know what to do. You’ve got the Scripture to guide you, Scripture, which is a little piece of the world moved by the breath of the Creator: Scripture is a yaw string. Scripture which will guide you to maneuver through the garden efficiently, effectively, smooth in flight. It is about flying by the seat of your pants and not thinking.  Thinking leads to screaming.

But what of the Angel?  When Jesus was in the garden an angel was sent to him and the angel gave him strength. Frequently these days, I pray for an angel who will come and give me strength.  (And frequently, in the midst of a record breaking heat wave, I sweat until I think I must be sweating blood and I think, “I was supposed to have the angel by now. The angel is late.”) Remember, I said at the beginning that my instructor put two heavy weights in the nose of the sailplane so that I would be able to fly in the first place? That is because I, by myself, couldn’t do it. I by myself, can never do it. But I was never alone in the cockpit, and I am never alone in the garden.  There is a weight that is with me, before I ever begin the journey, keeping my nose from popping up, keeping me from stalling out and plummeting to the ground. Easy to forget. Required to fly. God is the Angel in the garden, locking me to the safe, firm ground, and enabling me to soar over the Garden with strength and courage.

“Let us hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past; and let us pray that our God will bring each of us to the fullest of redemption.”
 (BCP 288)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cornelius Hill and Chilly Willy

May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us, that in this and in all things, we may do God’s will in the service of the Kingdom of his Christ. Amen.

Today we remember and acknowledge Cornelius Hill. He was ordained a deacon in 1895 and priest in 1903.  Our lectionary guides tell us that he was:

An interpreter for Episcopal Services to the Oneida

Successfully resisted government attempts to move the nation further west
In case you don’t know or remember, while we think of the Oneida as a Wisconsin nation with a thriving gambling business, the Oneida are native to New York and were forcefully removed to Wisconsin in 1821.

It says “His wisdom and sanctity are still revered by the Oneida.”

Now, I read as much as I could find about Cornelius Hill.  I read up on my Oneida history.  I read biographical material and excerpts from newspaper accounts and church documents. He was a truly faithful man, a strong man, a courageous one and very intelligent one. 

But, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the larger church: he was not an exceptional one.  So I have to wonder how he made it into the canon of the church. How he got a Feast day and a number of “shrines” built in his honor.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking six middle schools from St. James Jackson, Mississippi on an urban mission trip. We took food and supplies to a location where the Night Ministry was working. The night ministry offers solace, support, food, medical supplies and as much help as they can, to people living in abject poverty, in crime ridden neighborhoods, with addiction, abuse and in the shadows of our society.  I drove these children from a relatively elite section of Jackson Mississippi to 111th and State, to one of the most threatened areas of our City. At 10PM. In the summer.  Over the course of the night we had several conversations that started with, “Why do y’all have fireworks in the middle of June, Miss Shay?” and ended with “What do you mean, gunfire?”

Now, we have in our culture this sort of new word, it’s not one I particularly like. The word is “Othering.”  Othering. You already don’t like it, right? It is defined as “the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group.” When we declare a person or group to be “other” we stress what it is about them that is different from us. We create a binary: the pernicious but ever present binary: “us” and “them.” And is so doing we imply that one is superior and the other inferior, one is normal and one is exotic.  One is right and one is wrong. We do this with stereotypes in our culture and media, we do it by ghettoizing our cities, and we do it and have done it in the church for millennia when we dismiss indigenous religious practice and force our language of faith, our means of worship, our language of praise, on any culture already in touch with the Holy One, the God of Creation. We in the church are so good at it that we have wiped out dozens of indigenous religions like extinct animals. And, because we are still, always and ever at work making excuses, as soon as we identified it, we white washed it with a nice emotionally neutral term: coercive evangelism. We were killing people to bring them to the right faith of God – first peoples, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Moari, Koreans – we punished them until they did it our way, frequently at the cost of their cultures, of their livelihoods, sometimes at the cost of their lives. For Centuries. And still today. And what do we call this institutional, historical and pervasive tragedy? “Othering.”

On the way down to 111th and State, the kids in the car talked about two things: the glamor and wealth of their Winnetka hosts.  They used words like “rich” and “white” and “safe” and “beautiful.” They all want to live here when they grow up.  Then, other the other hand, they talked about who the people were who they were going to see at the Night Ministry site.  Here they used words like “poor person” and “prostitute” and “addict” and “homeless” and “ex-con.”  There was implicit in their speech a kind of cultural Calvinism that is imbedded in our society.

Calvinism is a system of belief developed at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and articulated most popularly by John Calvin. We in the Episcopal Church don’t buy it much, but it is pervasive in our culture.  In our culture, Calvinism looks like this: if you follow the rules of our culture, you will be successful and you will be rewarded. But if you are poor and suffering, in our culture, then it must mean you are doing something wrong. If you are thin and pretty, you must be eating and exercising, if you are fat or sick, you must be lazy and a Big Mac fan. If you are wealthy and living in Winnetka, it’s because you earned it with hard work and good genes.  If you are poor and living on the street you must be one of those things I listed above: an ex-con, a drunk, a sinner of some kind.

But we don’t believe that about our God, do we?  We don’t believe that God only saves those who worship the right way, who keep the Ten Commandments exactly, who never sin or never stumble or have no faults. No, our God is a God of mercy.  Our God is a God of unconditional love.  We can -and do- get up every morning and sin like heck all the way through the day and at the end of it God forgives us.  God hopes we’ll try. God is waiting for us to aspire to a better life. God is thrilled when we do.  But never, ever does God use God’s grace as a reward. 

About the same time as John Calvin came up with his commerce of Salvation, a good Episcopalian named John Wesley articulated the idea of “prevenient grace.”  We all have in us a little box of potential.  It resides in our bodies at the cellular level and inside that box is the grace of God.  It is the potential to be in community with God, it is the potential to accept God as the guiding light of our lives.  We all have it in us. Every one of us.  We have to use our free will to let it out.  We don’t earn it, God gives it. Freely. From the moment of our creation. Forever.

That’s the kind of God we believe in, one who loves us completely, already and forever, not the kind who gives grace as a gold star for good behavior.

So if we don’t accept that God works that way, why do we accept that society does?
Why is it okay to believe that we are we and they are them and that is that?

Because we are afraid of the reality that there is nothing between us and them. We work hard. They work hard. We strive and sin and strive. They strive and sin and strive. We believe and they believe.

What sets up apart is the luck of birth. The privilege of healthcare and nutrition. The advantages of education, shelter and a nation at peace.

These factors that set us apart … they are man made.  God has nothing to do with abject poverty. What separates “us” from “them” … is us.

You see, what I learned from those kids in their experience with the Night Ministry, what I learned, what I remember and what I hope none of us EVER forget, is that those words they were using, “convict,” “addict,” “prostitute,” “wealthy,” “educated” or “black” or “brown.” Those are earthly labels.  God doesn’t see those folks as convicts and homeless people.  God sees them as children.  We are all God’s children.  We are all made in God’s image.  And we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

We put up those walls between “us” and “them.” We created that binary.  Because here’s a tip about our Trinitarian God – there are no binaries in Kingdom. There is no “us” and “them.”  The Kingdom is a spectrum. The Kingdom is a rainbow. The Kingdom is a bridge between Tower Road and Sheridan and 111th and State.

So, here we are, honoring Cornelius Hill, a great leader among Oneida, a great man among all men.  And we should honor him because a life lead in Christ, any life lead in and serving Christ, is worth a feast day, for sure.

But as we celebrate him today, let us take a moment to be grateful for whatever lessons we have learned about ourselves and our Creator that led us to lift up Cornelius Hill. And let us pray for more courage, more faith and more wisdom so that the day will come in our lifetimes, when earthly labels fall away and we are all free to realize our own prevenient grace.

Before I close, I would like to tell you this one thing. This sermon is, like all sermons, a composite of things I read, talked about with friends and prayed about … but this sermon in particular owes its essence to a man called “Chilly Willy” who gave it in his own terms to the children I took to his neighborhood one night a few weeks ago. He said, “We all get up every day and try and fail and God forgives us. All we have to do is ask.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

 The Truth Will Make You Friends
A Sermon on John 8:31.

Here’s a test:  finish this sentence:
The Truth will….
Set you free, right?
See, that’s a sign that you’re good Christians and you know your Scripture and just maybe that you were paying attention just now.
But is that really how you would finish the sentence… if you were being truthful?

Here’s how I would finish it:
The Truth will…probably get me in trouble.
The Truth will…usually hurt someone’s feelings.
The Truth will… definitely complicate things.
The truth will…likely cost me money or time or inconvenience.
The truth will…hurt me.

You see, we don’t really like the truth in our culture.  We prefer the brief, innocuous, harmless white-lie.  You can tell because there are four billion words in the English language for lie and we always have more words for something we value than something we do not. Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow.  We have dozens of words for “lie.”

But there is only one word for truth. Truth.

We tell so many of these little fibs every day.
“Did you like the play?...I loved it, you’re a great playwrite.”
“Do you want to see this movie?... Sorry, I have plans.”
“Do the kids like their Christmas fruit cake?... You betcha.”
“Whadda ya think of  the new Rector?...” Well, we’ll take that one on faith.
How about this one, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

You know, I have a friend who is an incredibly brave man and I did not know that about him until a couple of weeks ago. 

He set for himself a Lenten discipline that is telling the truth.  For the duration of Lent, he is trying not to deceive the people around him.  Like this:
“Good morning, How are you? “
“I’m having a tense week.”
“Hey, how’s the family?”
“Not so hot.”
The truth.  Just like that, not sugar coated with “But I know we’ll be fine” or “I just need some rest” because then its not the truth.  You don’t know it will be fine. You hope it will, you have faith that it will.  But to say it will, that is not the truth.

It’s pretty frightening, right? 
There are two ways for a person to respond to this honesty, too.  One is to back away, palms out mumbling something about “Too Much Information.”  But you know what?  The person who asks “How are you” and cant stand to hear the answer, they are the one that’s lying.
The other response might be to stop, look right into the face of the honest person and say, “I’m sorry.”  Or  “I wish I could help you.” 

Now, I don’t know exactly how this is all playing out for my courageous friend, but I like to think I can imagine it. You come to work one morning determined to be genuine with the people around you.  Committed to being truthful.
“Hi, Boss, how are you?”
“Not so hot.”
“I’m sorry.  Is there anything I can do?”
“No, thank you. I’m under a lot of stress and I haven’t slept well.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Then maybe, in my little fantasy workplace, 3PM rolls around, the deadly hour when that Sleepy Scion of Satan sneaks into your office and makes your eyelids heavy and your head nod. But today at three, the colleague brings you a cup of coffee and a piece of fruit.  Or today, the colleague sticks her head in and says, “I’ll close your door and take your calls for half an hour.” 

Then the next day, she comes in and you say, “How are you?” and she says, “I’m worried about my son is Afghanistan.”  Did you know her son was there?  Did you know how preoccupied she is with it?  And later, when she hands you a document with a formatting issue in it, you’ll be a little less critical, a little more graceful when you point it out.  Because why? Because you feel closer to her.
You shared the truth, you responded to one another kindly.
You’re building a relationship.

Now, its not an easy thing to be honest in this way. Remember I said this friend of mine was one of the bravest men I know. You have to make yourself vulnerable. You have to trust your truth in the hands of the people around you and in turn be trustworthy with their truths.

But if you can do it, you can create deeper, more emotionally real, more supportive, healthier and stronger relationships with the people around you.  In every context of your life.  The truth will make you friends.

There is another way to to approach the truth, of course.  A way that does not create relationships but destroys them.  A way that that exploits vulnerability. A way that neither departs from nor arrives at love.

Jesus talks about that here when he talks about enslavement to sin.  He’s not talking about lying.  The truth that sets you free is not the opposite of lying.  The truth that sets you free is the opposite of the truth that enslaves you. It is a truth based not on love but on fear, not on trust but on suspicion. The truth that sets you free creates a safe space for vulnerability, for giving, for forgiveness.  The truth that exploits vulnerability, shouts down empathy and ends in barriers and destruction.

My father was a Counter Intelligence Agent with the Central Intelligence Agency.  He used to say, “The best soldier is the one who is most intimate with his enemy, the best liar is the one who knows the truth.”

Once, I went on a tour of the headquarters in Virginia and you know what I saw? “The Truth Will Set You Free” is engraved in marble over the door of CIA Headquarters. Its ironic, right?  Here is an organization created for the specific purpose of obscuring certain critical truths.  Here is an institution that intentionally, consistently and effectively “spins” facts, manipulates truth. How much mischief has come out of that building with that maxim engraved over the door? And its stated mission is “to protect” our freedom.

But you see, that’s what is different about it.  The CIA is charged with protecting your freedoms, not with granting them.  They don’t guarantee you safety from foreign adversaries, they only police it.  They don’t promise you international security, they only enforce it. This is because they are charged not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it, not with transparency but with secrecy.  That’s not freedom, that’s drawing a line around something, fencing it in.  And what government body more aptly describes the truth that enslaves us than the CIA. A necessary evil.  A white lie to protect.  A policy of privacy that builds walls between people.

Now, I’m not saying the CIA isn’t necessary.  I am grateful for the good work those men and women do every day.  But I don’t think that particular institution embodies the message Christ was trying to get across in this text.

Because here is what Christ says:  The truth that sets you free puts you in community with your fellow man and woman.  The truth that builds a wall between us enslaves us to sin.

So, what about that sentence. The truth will…
The truth will…test our courage,
The truth will… challenge society’s norms
The truth will…. test the mettle of the people in our lives.
The truth will set you free… to love and be loved unburdened by fear and falsehood.
Christ offered us that kind of love, unburdened by fear or falsehood.  And he offered us a roadmap to its source:

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you know the truth and the truth will make you free… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Kingdom of God has Come Near You

The Kingdom of God has Come Near You
Psalm 102:15-22
Isaiah 52:7-10
Philippians 2:1-5
Luke 10:1-9

In our text today (Philippians 2:1-5) Paul tells us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”… “having the same love, being in full accord … do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves… look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Luke (10:8-9) tells us:
“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, … cure the sick who are there and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near you.”

What do you suppose the kingdom of God is?
We hear elsewhere in Scripture that it is “like”
A mustard seed
A treasure
A pearl
A farmer
And so on…

But what is it really?

Do you remember the What Would Jesus Do craze?  People wore wrist-bands and tee shirts that said WWWJD – and encouraged us all to think about what Jesus would do.  It was a good idea that ended up being kind of patronizing and a little silly.

There is a cartoon going around the internet lately that parodies the What Would Jesus Do campaign.  The cartoon depicts Jesus on a hillside and lists things Jesus would NOT do.  The list includes:
            Harass a single mother
            Shoot a doctor – shoot anyone- own a weapon
Hate his enemies
Attack the poor
And my personal favorite…Run for President

It’s not too hard to define the kingdom of God in the negative.  We know what it isn’t.
But how can we know what it is?

At our Women’s Retreat this past weekend, a member joking declared that the manna- that mysterious and miraculous sustenance which was offered to the Israelites as they crossed the desert in Exodus- that the manna was actually Diet Coke.  We discussed this idea at some length and decided that manna would taste different to each individual, for some it would be crème Brule and for others guacamole and chips. This being a women’s retreat the consensus was that manna would likely taste like chocolate.

Accepting this unorthodox but not entirely theologically unsound premise, the kingdom of God might look like different things to different people.
It might look like clothing to an impoverished mother
It might look like food to a starving Somali
It might look like enfranchisement to a Chinese dissident
It might look like reunion to the spouse of a deployed soldier
It might look like health to a person in pain

It would without a doubt look like arms outstretched and hands open

Today we celebrate the life and work of Thomas Bray, an 18th Century priest and missionary to the American Colonies. Here are some of the things he did:
He radically reorganized and renewed the Church in Maryland.
He arranged for the instruction of children there
He re-organized the process of discernment and training of priests and pastors
He opened 31 libraries and a number of schools
He defended – from the pulpit both in England and the U.S. – the rights of enslaved Africans and displaced Native Americans
He persuaded Governor Oglethorpe to found the colony of Georgia as a as an alternative to debtors prison
He founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, both of which survive two hundred and fifty years later.
(He was in America exactly 10 weeks)

Here are things he didn’t do:
He didn’t force the Gospel on anyone – he offered them a chance to hear and learn it themselves.
He increased the presence of the Church – not by building buildings, but by propagating servants
He didn’t seek to punish those who had fallen on hard times, he sought to alleviate their suffering
He didn’t turn the other way when he saw the oppression of marginalized, enslaved, exiled people – he spoke from the pulpit at considerable personal risk – in their defense

Thomas Bray had a list of things he wanted to accomplish in this life.
We all have a list of things we want to accomplish in this life. 
What makes Thomas Bray exceptional is not what he accomplished, but how:

He did nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility
He looked not to his own interests but to the interests of others
He clearly tried to let the same mind be in him that was in Christ Jesus.

Oh, on the list of things Thomas Bray DID do, I forgot to mention:
He brought the Kingdom of God closer to us.

Now, only Christ, when he returns, can bring the Kingdom of God finally and completely to us all. 

But in the mean time, while we are waiting, we are asked in our texts today to bring the Kingdom of God “closer.”  It almost doesn’t matter what you do. If you are in the same mind as Christ, if you let yourself be motivated by a desire to be of like mind to Christ… you are bringing the Kingdom closer to us.

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
Who brings good news,
Who announces salvation
Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

There But For the Grace of God

There but for the Grace of God
(Jan 2, 2012)
John 9:1-7 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4Wemust work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 

You know, there is just not that much difference between people in the first century and people in the 21st century.

In the first century, people commonly believed that your sins would be visited on you and on your children and their children for generations. They believed that if something ill befell you, it was a sign of your sin. They even had certain sins assigned to certain illnesses, impure thoughts might manifest themselves as insanity,   gossip resulted in throat cancer,   anger might emerge as bile in the gut.     Envy is commonly associated with blindness.

And so in this text, our 1st Century characters see a blind man and wonder what he did to deserve to be blind.

To our 21st Century ears, that sounds inhumane, completely lacking in empathy, unthinkable.
Or does it? How often do we hear of the misfortune of others and immediately look for a way to distinguish ourselves from them. Our first instinct is to erect a wall between what happened to them and what is possible for us.     “I don’t live where there are tidal waves”      “We never go to Brown’s Chicken”      “We never leave candles burning.”

The implication is that there is something about me or my circumstances that will keep that misfortune from happening to me.The implication is that there is something about her or her circumstances, that resulted in his misfortune.

You see, people in the 1st Century and in the 21st Century are not that different at all.

But that misses the whole point of this Scripture and indeed of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels as a whole. In our Gospel today, Jesus is not concerned with the reason that the blind man is blind. Jesus is concerned with the opportunity it offers him, the opportunity it offers all of us, to be the vehicle for transformation in the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.
The Scripture says:
“he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day;…. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 
·         Bad things do happen to good people.    Accidents, illness, misfortune, they are indiscriminate.        No one deserves to have their entire community swept away by a tornado.   Nobody deserves to be blind. But the answer is not to make a distinction; The answer is not to define an “us” and a “them.” The answer is never a wall between people.
(Here’s a tip: when you are wondering if your actions are following in the footsteps of Christ… if you’re building a wall between people, they’re not.)

The Good News in this Gospel is that Jesus takes people where he finds them. No looking back with regret, no “what if.” Jesus teaches us to start where we are and move forward. There is an opportunity for God’s grace here, the potential for the presence of the Lord.
“he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day;…. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 

In this Scripture we are called to work the works of mercy and kindness…to be the light when there appears to be only darkness. We are called to be the instruments of consolation, the conduits of God’s healing love.

And how are we expected to achieve such an awesome task?Th ese are scenes of tragedy and trauma and suffering, how can we possibly be expected to make the love of God present in situations such as these? 
Well, Jesus spit on the ground.
He spit and made a mud ball and smeared it on the poor blind man’s face...

This is one of those cases where it helps to know the context. Galilee is a pretty arid place. The soil is fertile, but it takes some work to grow things. What Jesus does, then, is take dry, arid dirt and add water to make it fertile. And not just any water, water from his own mouth. His own essence is part of what makes the dirt into soil and releases its potential for growth. Jesus’ saliva represents something essential to him, something unique and priceless.

He took a little bit of himself, some of his DNA and added that to the soil to make the poultice. 
And that is what this text calls us to do. When we are confronted with tragedy, with suffering and with misfortune… we are called to be instruments of God’s grace. And not just with some soil and some water from our water bottle.

Now, you may be thinking, “Oh no. I have no more time in my day to cook for the soup kitchen. I work full time, I cannot train with the Red Cross.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to. There are times when all we can do and in fact the best thing we can do, is write a check.
In that case, by all means write that check. 

But when you do, add a little of your own essence to it. Enclose a note to the relief worker – there are places on the Episcopal Relief website to do that. Or just stop before you press send and say a little prayer over your gift.

Join your energy with God’s to transform the lives of the less fortunate.
That is all this Scripture is asking us to do…
to add a little of ourselves,
become invested,
draw on our own resources,
So that the healing and the mitigation and the resolution are part of us and we are part of them.
No longer is the suffering person “other” or distinct from us,
now we are blended,
blind man and healer,
sufferer and comforter,
friend and friend.

That is all we are asked to do. To give of ourselves, as we are able, and with the grace of guidance of God, to heal what is broken in Creation.

In the first Century and in the 21st Century, When we witness human tragedy, we are tempted to have the same initial response of fear. We whisper, “There, but for the grace of God go, I”
But we are called by this Scripture to respond differently. We are called to say, not in a whisper but in a loud and very clear voice,

“Here, by the grace of God, are we…all in it together.”