Monday, October 21, 2013

Fire and Rain

Proper 16 C; August 25, 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Our gospel lesson today is only incidentally about healing a woman’s crippling ailment. This story is really about who is entitled to be healed – who is to be included – who is privileged – and who is not.

In the religious communities of Jesus’ day, ritual purity was very important. Cleanness and uncleanness, health and sickness, who could be touched and who could not be touched – all of these considerations were the basis of religious laws. Doing any work, including the work of healing, was forbidden on the Sabbath, the day of rest.

These laws about cleanness defined who was in and who was out. If you were sick, as this woman was for 18 years, you were isolated, alone, probably shunned by your family, with begging your only option for making a living. So Jesus was not only doing some work – the work of God – by healing on the Sabbath; he was healing someone deeply unclean, someone shunned, someone the men in the synagogue would never touch – would perhaps not even look in the eye.

Jesus healed this woman, on this day, on purpose. Way back in the 4th chapter of this same Gospel of Luke, Jesus said this in his first sermon in his hometown synagogue: “Today this scripture has come true in your hearing.” You could say that the rest of the Gospel is an embodiment of that statement. In everything else he does in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is the living example of the work of God – the mission of God. If you want to know what scripture means, what God’s work of creation means, look no farther than me, Jesus said. Look no farther than this woman, this daughter of Abraham, that I have set free from her bondage to all of you.

If Jesus embodies healing and liberation, then those the gospel calls his “opponents” embody privilege, institutionalized privilege that shuts the “unclean” out. Institutionalized privilege is “business as usual.” If you do something, and someone says to you, “How dare you!” you are likely to have snubbed that person’s sense of privilege. Institutionalized privilege means you get to set the rules. You get to define what is normal, what is clean, who is worthy. You never have to earn this privilege; you just get it, by virtue of being … privileged. It is hard to question privilege that is institutionalized, because it is in the very air you breathe – that all of us breathe, those on the inside of privilege as well as those on the outs. It’s just the way things are.
That’s why the healing is only incidental to this story. What Jesus is doing here is upending a whole institution of privilege. Or you could say that healing IS central to the story but what Jesus is doing is healing all of these people of their sin of privilege – of their sin of pretending to be better than this woman – of their sin of thinking they are better than God.

In the midst of the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I caught a re-run of a
documentary on the life of the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin was eloquent about the toll white privilege took on him as a black-skinned American. It was exhausting, crippling, to be written out of American society as though he did not exist. The documentary frequently shows footage of white people incredulously asking Baldwin why he raises these questions with such urgency and can’t he just wait until things get better? It’s like expecting that crippled woman outside the synagogue just to wait another 18 years. But when privilege – the privilege to heal, the privilege to include, the privilege to define the terms of everyone else’s life – is institutionalized, everyone is shocked, and challenged, when someone has the audacity to raise questions. It is even more shocking when someone actually acts, and exposes privilege for the fallacy that it is. Heal on the Sabbath? She is a daughter of Abraham. Why shouldn’t she be healed?

This week we are reminded again how difficult it is to raise questions about white privilege. The journalist Charles Blow wrote,

… my worry is that we have hit a ceiling of sorts. As we get closer to a society where explicit bias is virtually eradicated, we no longer have the stomach to deal with the more sinister issues of implicit biases and of structural and systematic racial inequality.
I worry that centuries of majority privilege and minority disenfranchisement are being overlooked in puddle-deep discussions about race and inequality, personal responsibility and societal inhibitors.[i]

There were people in the 1960s who found James Baldwin terrifying. He grew up in the church. He knew the power of the wrath and thunder found in writings like our passage today from the Epistle to the Hebrews. One of his most famous books takes its title from a spiritual that could have been inspired by this passage – and Baldwin used those lines to warn society of the true wrath to come at the dismantling of white privilege:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign/no more water – the fire next time.

But at heart he was a true believer in God’s work of creation, a true believe that God’s grace was about the healing and reconciling of all of humanity. At the end of the film, we hear Baldwin say,

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and that you will trust me more than you do now, that we will trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the new Jerusalem. I really do believe that we can all become better than we are, I know we can, but the price is enormous.[ii]

James Baldwin was able to say that, with that kind of hope and realistic optimism because he knew these stories of Jesus upending privilege just to heal some unnamed woman who had been sick for 18 years. James Baldwin, and all of us, were watching Jesus that day, and James Baldwin, and surely all of us, were among the crowd who rejoiced.

Fire and Perseverence

Proper 15 C; August 18, 2013
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

It seems impossible to be reminded of the end of the world on such a glorious mid-August morning as yesterday, but the New York Times managed to do it. According to an op-ed writer, the Palisades of the Hudson, just north of the George Washington Bridge, are “a reminder of a cataclysm and mass extinction.”

The cliffs were once underground channels of molten rock that fed widespread volcanic eruptions 200 million years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea pulled apart at the seams. The eruptions covered more than four million square miles with basalt lava and belched vast amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur into the atmosphere. Brief volcanic winters followed, but the eruptions also set off an ocean-acidifying, global-warming catastrophe that wiped out three-quarters of life on earth. This was the end-Triassic extinction, which cleared the way for the dinosaurs and their domination of the planet for the next 136 million years, before a giant asteroid struck Mexico and ended their reign.

Really? Do I really need to be reminded of all of this on a serene, crystal clear morning, as I sip my coffee and look out at my garden? And then, of course, the even-worse kicker:

“In terms of global warming and ocean acidification,” … the rate of change during the end-Triassic extinction “was comparable to what we’re doing today.”[i]

Today, it seems, you can run but you cannot hide. In the gospel, Jesus seems to forget that his nickname is “Prince of Peace”[ii] – the words of hope our very same prophet Isaiah wrote when he was not bitterly condemning us for faithlessness and violence, telling us how God will destroy the very garden he gave us to
live in because we have become sour and wild. This theme is echoed in Psalm 80, a psalm of communal lament: God has abandoned us, left our gardens and communities desolate, and we beg God for help. With God-given leadership, we say, we will never turn away from God, we promise. Restore us, give us life, God, give us light, and we shall be saved.

At the same time that these Bible readings take us simultaneously to ancient history and to the futuristic end of time, we are grabbed and brought to today: Egypt is all over these lessons: violence, bloodshed, familial fighting, endless division and conflict. The Epistle to the Hebrews is ripped from the headlines: torture, flogging, chains and imprisonment, stoned to death, destitute, tormented, wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and holds in the ground. “I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus said – fire, the prophet’s way to speak of the judgment of God. Can you not see the signs of these times, Jesus asked the crowd who came to hear the Prince of Peace. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky – you can read the stock reports and the housing sales and the consumer price index; you even know what the fossils are telling you in the geologic record of billions of years ago – but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

As much as we might NOT want to read these things in the Bible, here indeed they are and always have been. Difficult texts, yes, but real. No easy answers. Our lives and times, troubling and tormented, laid bare. The wounds in our human nature revealed. Our micro-troubles, with our personal shortcomings – anger with our families, unhappiness at work, sickness, greed, envy – all that and more wrought large, on a global scale. God shines klieg lights on all the bad stuff.

We are relieved to find one human in this whole bunch of prophets and lamenters: the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. What a blessing to find someone who puts all these hard times in context, who finds meaning and redemption even in the midst of terror and despair. “By faith,” when terrible things happen, we are not destroyed. The Epistle to the Hebrews puts us in the middle of that great stream of time, where we see the struggles of those who have gone before right here next to ours and connected as well to those who will come after us. We run toward the promises of God, the goal we have always sought, the story of God and humanity and this whole created order that is still unfolding. We cannot pretend that things we do not like are not happening, for this writer reminds us that it is in the midst of even the most terrible of circumstances that God’s story is revealed, God’s truth is made known, God’s grace surrounds us.

Jesus told us to pray that God’s kingdom and God’s will would be done. It was no more finished when Jesus walked the earth, died and rose from the dead than it is now. But for Jesus, and for us, if we would but read the signs around us, in our times, we would see that God’s purposes are unfolding, even now, even here, even in our own lives, as those purposes unfolded in the lives of those the writer to the Hebrews calls the
pioneers of faith.

Short of stopping global warming or negotiating a peaceful settlement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, what can we do, even in the midst of our own challenges, to work toward that Kingdom goal Jesus set for us? To align ourselves with the purposes of God? To keep faith with those who have run this race before, and to pass on to those who come after us this same promise of God’s grace that we have received?

Remember you have been in the ditch

Proper 10; July 14, 2013
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

There are two stories here. The first story is about a lawyer who wants to do the right thing. He wants to know the rules, so he can obey them. He wants to know how he can live the good life, how to be a good person. The law will tell him how to live.

So here is this lawyer, just trying to get it all straight: love God, love neighbor, okay. We’re agreed. Yes, Jesus says. Then the lawyer says, “Who IS my neighbor?” Listen to how the contemporary theologian Frederick Buechner paraphrases the answer the lawyer wants:

A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.[i]

You get the sense that Luke thinks this is the answer that the lawyer wants Jesus to give to his question. But instead, Jesus tells a story.

Read the passage again and think about it: Who is the main character of this story within a story?
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

The man in the ditch is the main character of the story. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, A man was on the road, was beat up by robbers and thrown into a ditch, left for dead.
When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells this story about a man in pretty desperate need of a neighbor. Jesus tells the lawyer a story about himself, about a man looking for a neighbor. The man lying in a ditch is not going to find anyone remotely like him walking by, if you have to rely on people remotely like yourself to help you when you are in need. The only person who is going to help you is going to be a stranger, and that stranger might even be one of your enemies. The priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – none of them would be pre-disposed to think of a man bleeding and left for dead in a ditch would be their neighbor.

Jesus tells the story this way to shock us into realizing that we are the ones "… lying in that ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to forget what he’s been taught and what he understands his rights to be. He needs to forget the risk and the robbers, and stop and help us in our need."[ii]

We are the ones who need a neighbor.

There are a lot of ditch stories in spiritual literature. Julian of Norwich, in the 14th century, told a story about a Lord and a servant. The Lord sent the servant on an errand, but like our man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the servant fell in a ditch, and so could not obey the master. In Julian’s day, sin, and the inevitability of sin, was a big matter. People reading her story would assume that the Lord would be angry and punish the servant for falling into the ditch. But no, Julian wrote, that is not the way God is; God loves the servant. “Sin is necessary,” she wrote – life is full of ditches we fall into, that we get pushed into, that we even jump into; “sin is necessary, but all will be well.” “God is not now one thing, now another,” she wrote, “now loving to the saved, now angry to the damned, but always the same, always love.”

The Magdalene Community, in Nashville, is a community of women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution and drug abuse. These women have developed a rule of life, kind of like a 12-step program, kind of like a religious order. In their little book, Find Your Way Home, they describe this, Step No. 17:
Remember You Have Been in the Ditch

The ditch is the place where I was beat up and beat down, with busted lips and black eyes. The ditch was where I was raped and was crying and screaming and thinking no one could hear.
My sister was rescued from a ditch. Her bus crashed while crossing over a bridge in Cameroon, Africa. She was going there to help teach and ended up being pulled from death by a kind stranger who happened to be travelling behind the bus. I will never forget how quickly she went from being there as a helper to desperately needing the help of others. If I let myself have the luxury of contemplation, the image of my sister being pulled from the ditch leaves me forever grateful.
Who are you to tell me I have done wrong? I’m asking, who are you to say that you will pray for me and that help is just around the bend? Just who are you to say that you are sorry that stuff happens and that I should stop whining? The only way I can know you is if you tell me you have been in the ditch, too.[iii]

Who is my neighbor, the lawyer asked Jesus. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” Jesus answered. Your neighbor, says Jesus, is the man who, against all odds, is the one who helps you out of the ditch.

[i] Frederick Buechner, from Wishful Thinking, quoted in the Frederick Buechner Blog,
[iii] Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart by the Women of Magdalene, with Becca Stevens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), pp. 79-80
Photographs from the Thistle Farms website, where you can find out more about the work of the Magadalene community, and how these women have changed their lives.

The kingdom of heaven has come near to you

Proper 9C; July 7, 2013
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 66
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

There is a scene from a movie that sticks vividly in my mind. It’s from Merlin, a made-for-tv version of the King Arthur legend, told from the point of view of the wizard, Merlin. After a lifetime of having his life, and the lives of good people, damaged by Queen Mab – a deliciously evil Celtic goddess – Merlin realizes that if everyone turns their backs on Mab, if they just go on with their lives as though she did not exist, then she would lose her power over them. She would not exist if no one followed her devious schemes into violence, deception and death.

One way to look at evil is that it is a figment of our imaginations. Satan, or Mab, in her made-for-tv incarnation anyway, are creatures of human myth, personifications of a seemingly insatiable demand for murder and revenge. They seem to offer humans privilege but it is all a scheme to enhance their power.
While the 70 are out on their mission to preach the Good News, Jesus receives a vision of Satan cast down “from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Could it be that this very mission, this sending out of simple earnest folk, two by two, signals the end of the stranglehold of Satan over us? Could it mean that our imagination is now freed from this personification of evil that keeps demanding violence and blood sacrifice? From this creature of our own making that gave voice to an insatiable desire for vengeance? “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” Jesus told the apostles to say to everyone, even those who ran them out of town. “The kingdom of God has come near to you, whether you listen to me our not.”

The apostles turned their backs on the seductive power of Satan, and Satan, always more alive in the human imagination than in God’s, began to fade into oblivion. But even the defeat of Satan is not really the point of Jesus’ mission: it is to ready all who are willing to listen for their citizenship in this new kingdom, this new way of being, that is already here.

If Jesus came here today and commissioned the 70 of us to go out into Onondaga County two by two, it would not be that unlike the mission of the 70 in the gospel. Like them, we would be sent out to places we knew, and to places where we were strangers. Scholars say Jesus sent the 70 into Samaria, to Jews who had broken with mainstream Judaism and to whom Jesus offered an invitation to restoration to the community. We would also be sent into hostile territory, to a society that does not want to hear much of Jesus’ message. It’s best to travel lightly into such danger, and to be ready to move on when rejected. We might be visiting neighborhoods where drive-by shootings happen, or panhandlers accost you. We might be in very comfortable places, where people politely turn away from us, certain that their lives are together and they don’t need to hear the words we have to bring.

When the apostles said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” many people turned away way. A society ruled not by violence and threat, not by the “haves” lording it over the “have-nots,” but by justice and mercy, generosity and abundance, seemed inconceivable; a nice fairy tale, but, no thanks, that’s not the way our world works.

Many did listen, however. The gospel reports that the 70 came back to Jesus reporting success, and Jesus told them his vision: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” It worked. People listened. They moved into the new reality. They were healed of infirmities, relationships were reconciled, they turned their back on the power violence and the fear of violence held over them.

The Kingdom of heaven has come near to us. We know it comes near when we notice when people choose conversation over confrontation, reconciliation over retribution, generosity over greed, solidarity over selfishness.

When I was in campus ministry, some of my students were counselors at the diocesan summer camp. One week the campers were nearly all from tough neighborhoods in Chicago. The counselors had to break up a lot of fights; gang signs were flashing right and left. A few kids were sent home. But at moments when the counselors needed to calm the kids down, when the culture of violence and revenge was getting just too seductive and powerful, the camp musician started playing a song on his guitar. The children would stop what they were doing, gather in a circle and hold hands. “They just loved that song,” he told me. “It would always calm them right down.”

It’s a simple song. I don’t know the words, but the meaning is clear, to those who are willing to hear it: “The kingdom of heaven has come near to you.” And when that circle gathered, and those young, frightened people held hands and sang and swayed, Jesus had a vision: “I watched Satan fall from heaven in a flash of lightning.” It’s possible, even today, even now, for even us to go out on Jesus’ mission and to come back, rejoicing.

Suburbs: Garden or Grave -- or the place from where we start

Proper 8-C; June 30, 2013
1 Kings 2:1, 6-14
Psalm 77
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

In the early 1960s, there were two popular books by then-young theologians. One was The Secular City[i], which talked about how little American society seemed to care about religion, or God, or the church – that we were moving into a “post-religious society.” 

The other was The Suburban Captivity of the Churches[ii], which described how Protestant churches had fled their cities of origin and had become captive to the nice life of the suburbs -- the place where middle class values reigned, where American choices were equal to God’s choices, where Jesus was secure, and kind, and comforting. Indeed, the church itself was the place to be comfortable, to be friends with people like “us.” This security allowed us to be “nice” to “our neighbors” and of course we had chosen just who those neighbors were. Looking back, we can see a dialog between these two books: one of the reasons one theologian noticed that fewer people were taking the church seriously and preferring a “secular city” to a religious world view was that the church had become something that it was not supposed to become, something that Jesus had never intended it to become: a safe place, an orderly place, a place with no poor people, no conflicts, no challenges.

Well, some 50 years later, times have changed. Instead of increasing secularization, society has become increasingly religious. Part of the reason is the richness America receives from immigrants from all over the world: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and of course Christians from all those places that used to be colonies. Soon after those books were published, the 1960s and ‘70s erupted in times of great upheaval – and so people began to realize that religious texts and faith were relevant – could provide guidance in troubling times.

Ah but there is the rub – and perhaps the explanation to the mindset of “the suburban captivity.” These biblical texts, these words and stories about Jesus, are often themselves troubling. Jesus seems to be offering us comfort at the same time he challenges us to leave everything that is comfortable behind. No wonder people want the church to be a place of order and calm; if we took this Jesus too seriously, what kind of trouble would we invite?

The Jesus we encounter in this week’s Gospel is serious and stern. We are not yet half-way through the Gospel of Luke, but already Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, toward his confrontation with the powers and principalities, toward his passion and death. Jesus’ mission is serious and spare: he has no possessions, not even a place to call home. Whoever follows him is required to take up a similar strict regimen: “Let the dead bury their own dead” – the disciples are not even allowed the bare minimum of fealty to their families – “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” If Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, so then are the faces of his disciples – and of all of us who even today consider ourselves followers of Jesus.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the story of Superman was popular, and last night we saw the 2013 version. If the 1970s Superman was The Secular City version, slightly detached and ironic, then this Superman takes us right back to that decade where religious, political and social values all coincided. Superman, the ultimate undocumented immigrant, is indeed the All-American hero, very handsome, and very nice, and very sure that the power he so mightily uses is in the service of peace, justice and the American Way – and although they skirt the issue in the movie, they do make it appear that even God blesses his deeds of power. In the movie, Superman spends the first 33 years of his life getting ready for his big debut as the savior of the world.

Humanity has never had any shortage of “superman” types who purported to be saviors of the world – empires, and armies, and strong men abounded in the first century as in the modern era. But note that the Bible does not use those images when it talks about what Jesus brings.

The passage we read today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me of another text from the 1960s: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Remember that when Paul found Jesus, he lost everything else: his status, his job, his comfort zone of being a Jew with power to persecute others. Paul here recognizes that when he lost all those things, he found freedom. He became a disciple of Jesus long after he knew that following Jesus meant following him to his death. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who reads these texts very closely, noticed that when you read today’s Gospel and this passage from Paul together, as we do today, you see that following Jesus does bring freedom but freedom 

… of a very peculiar kind. It is not self-indulgent freedom, but freedom that enhances the neighborhood. The sum of the new freedom is “love of neighbor” …[iii]

Fifty years after the original Superman, do we really need another muscle-bound hero? It seems that the challenges of our day call us to be different kinds of freedom-loving heros – indeed, to be freedom-loving neighbors, people who take the power and blessing which comes from following Jesus to tie together our communities, to reach out to our neighbors in need. There is one line I did like in the new Superman movie. Clark Kent’s earthly father assures him that “he was sent here to make this world a better place.” I agree with that. There is no better reason to be on earth than to work for its transformation into the kind of place God created it to be. This suburban church, which can capture us with its serenity and beauty, should be our launching pad to go out and do that very thing.

[i] Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (1965), Collier Books
[ii] Gibson Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches: An Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in an Expanding Metropolis (1961), Doubleday
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, “June 27: Discipleship is No Picnic,” A Cast of Emancipated Characters, from Sojourners Magazine, June 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 6, pp. 48). Living the Word.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When you live in a crazy time, it can drive you crazy

Proper 7-C;June 23, 2013
Laura Austin plays Lady Macbeth, and
and Tyler Spicer (behind her) plays one
of the witches, in the RedHouse free summer
outdoor production of Macbeth.
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Ps. 42 & 43
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

DRAMA came right to our front door, yesterday. An audience of churchy and non-churchy people saw a production of Macbeth. Why, I wondered, are we seeing Macbeth on a midsummer afternoon, when any number of other Shakespeare plays spring to mind, for an afternoon’s entertainment. This story of evil, ambition and greed, of political intrigue and bloodthirsty vengeance – but this is a Saturday in June; what does any of THAT have to do with us?

Macbeth and his wife hatch their wicked plot to kill the king – and they succeed, although they leave a few more bodies in their wake then they had planned. But by the time Macbeth is made king, they are beginning to fall apart. The world has gone awry, and even though it was their evil deeds that caused it to happen, Macbeth and his lady are going mad. Macbeth sees the bloody ghosts of the men he has killed. Lady Macbeth cannot rest but dream of blood. The doctor her husband sends to heal her answers, She is

Not so sick, my lord,
as she is troubled with thick coming fancies,
that keep her from her rest.

Macbeth replies with the anguish of a husband, but with words tainted by the guilt that their actions have caused such madness:

Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
raze out the written troubles of the brain
and with some sweet oblivious antidote
cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
which weighs upon the heart?

Macbeth is not pleased when the doctor responds, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”

The doctor, and Shakespeare, and Macbeth, even, know that when you live in a crazy time, it can drive you crazy. When the society around you is crumbling, you can feel yourself coming apart. When there are conflicting voices and threats and challenges and fears, outside of you, you can feel them inside yourself, possessing yourself, almost taking your real self away from you. The world might be mad, but that madness is manifested one person at a time.

We have lessons today about naming the demons and confronting your fears. We have God taking a direct hand in the righting of some individuals. Elijah, caught up on a deadly conflict with King Ahab and his powerful wife, Jezebel, runs into the wilderness, prepared to die – willfully to die. But God intervenes, makes him eat and drink, sends him to a mountain cave. After all the noise of earthquake, wind and fire, it is in the sheer silence, the solitude, the absolute aloneness that Elijah hears the voice of God. God restores him to his right mind, to his mission, to his life. Now go back to Damascus, God says; right those wrongs.

In the story of the person filled with so many demons their name is “legion,” we hear great noise as well. The poor soul screams and hollers and breaks his bonds. When Jesus commands the demons to come out of him, they jump into a herd of squealing pigs and hurl themselves off a cliff. And here, too, as in the story of Elijah, all the drama is followed by silence and stillness: the man sitting clothed and in his right mind. He wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back to his home, to tell this story of God’s power.

That’s the thing about all these stories of healing in the bible. Yes, an individual is healed, but it is always an individual in a social context, in a setting, a person with a mission. The healing is to right a wrong, to get someone back on track, and then to get that person back into the community. There is not the sense that the person is at fault alone for his predicament. It’s the demons, it’s the persecution by the king – something from the outside is causing the trouble here. And when the person is healed, back he or she goes to work. The healing itself is proof that God is in charge of the world, not those demons who throw individuals out of whack, not power-hungry kings. There are no HIPAA laws in the bible, no medical privacy acts. When God heals you, it is your job to get back out there, and tell the Good News.

There are a lot of stories of healing in the Gospel of Luke, so many that Luke gets nick-named “the
physician.” These healings are signs, Luke tells us in this version of the story of Jesus, that the kingdom of God is breaking in all over. The reign of God is happening. God is in charge here, God is healing the world. God’s spirit and God’s goodness cannot be contained. They are specific incidents: Jesus healing that man in that place, and that man is living in a Jewish country occupied by a massive Roman military force – by the Roman military legions. The Gospels are pinpoint specific to that time and place.

And yet if we would but hear it, we can hear how these stories of healing apply to us, and to our time as well. God is breaking through in our lives, and in our time and place – God moves in to any situation where things have gotten out of whack, and if God has ever restored us to our rightful minds, then we should get out there and spread that Good News that the world is dying – literally dying – to hear.

Let’s remember this where we are, here in this church, in this garden, in this town and community, that the treasure we have is the treasure of the Good News. Like the man healed, wouldn’t we love to get into that boat with Jesus and sail away, but Jesus speaks these words to us, too: "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So let us then proclaim throughout our city how much Jesus has done for us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Whose hungry do we feed?

Proper 5C; June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

Many years ago, when we lived in a house from which, if we stood on one corner of the porch and got up on your tiptoes, we could see Onondaga Lake. In the 1990s, the county was beginning to get it together to clean up Onondaga Lake, and a campaign was launched: “Salmon 2000.” Clean the lake up enough that once again salmon would swim in it in abundance. My husband, Tim, who likes Florida, took it a bit further. Reports of the evidence of global warming were also in the news, and he was thinking a little of this climate change might not be such a bad thing for Central New York. “Manatee 2000!” he proclaimed. “Let’s have palm trees on Salina Street!”

As we know, the rain (or snow) fall on the just and the unjust, and so you could say that all of us will feel the effects of global warming. But some of us are more equal than others. Maybe we have the resources to absorb the effects of those changes, here in moderate Central New York, but millions of people around the world, who live by the seaside, or in flood plains, or in places which used to be dry and are now desert, can’t. Too much rain, or too little, and millions of people suffer. And we now know that global warming didn’t “just happen.”

The widow of Zarephath is suffering from the effects of an induced climate change. Desertification is already happening. God is punishing the evil king, Ahab, who is worshipping the false god, Baal, by bringing a drought to his kingdom. The mighty prophet Elijah tells Ahab and Jezebel that the power of only the one true God will bring rain and refreshment, and Ahab, who thinks his power comes from Baal, is very angry. Elijah leaves town, and God sends him to Sidon, to the home of this desperately poor widow.

If this widow lived in, say, DeWitt, she would pay $2.59 for a bottle of cooking oil. I don’t know what kind of meal she uses to make this cake, but if she used flour, it would cost her $1.99 – for five pounds. She is down to her last few tablespoons of oil, and last cup of flour. This woman is very, very poor. She is not just desperately poor; she is desolate, empty, without hope. We can assume that, like her king, Ahab, Baal is her god – Baal, who in this time of drought and famine has failed her. She is so poor that Elijah’s request seems an extraordinary imposition, but from some equally extraordinary reserve of hospitality, she uses her last bit of oil and last smidgen of meal to make a cake for this stranger. “Do not be afraid,” he says – you can see the incredulous look in her eyes – “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

And indeed, it happens just as the prophet said. The widow and her son are provided with food to last. But because famine and poverty take a devastating toll on the human body, even this sustenance is not enough to save the life of the widow’s son. She is now one step above desperation; she has enough energy to be angry, with the prophet and with God, the God who mustered enough grace to save her but not her child. Elijah then does the unthinkable, the unimaginable: he brings the child back to life. 

When I read this story I cannot get images out of my mind: images from our world, of people in war-torn regions, in places of drought and famine, earthquake and flood. Who are the Elijahs today, who save even a few women and children today? Can any of them, with their skill and resources, be as confident as Elijah, that God will give them the power to do what they say, to bring food, and hope and healing to these people living on the edge of desolation?

When Luke the evangelist writes his account of the life of Jesus, these are just the stories he finds, and uses. When Luke’s audience reads the story of Jesus bringing back to life the son of the widow of Nain, they would remember the power of Elijah, bringing to life the son of the widow of Zarephath. For Luke, the “usual suspects” are not who are interested in Jesus. They are too full of their own assurances, their own blessings, they are too secure in the belief that because they are well off, God has blessed them. Over and over again, Luke brings up these stories about Elijah, about the people he heals and helps – people outside of Israel, outside of the covenant, outside of expectations – people so desperate and desolate that they have nothing to believe in. Luke emphasizes that it is to these people that Jesus comes, and that it is these people who understand that the kingdom of God means new life for everybody, them included.

Think about how much you spend on groceries for one week. When I looked back, I was shocked to see that our family spent $9000 on food last year – not restaurants, but food. That is $750 a month. $175 a week.

The Springfield Gardens Food Pantry is about to re-open. There are people who live in the Town of DeWitt who depend on these groceries to make it through their month, people whose food income is well under $750 a month. Perhaps they are not as poor as the widow of Zarephath, but the disparity of income, in our own community, is shocking.

By the end of June, we have to come up with $3000 in order to open the food pantry. This money is used to buy food – Tary Simizon who is on the new board of the food pantry can tell you how it is budgeted, and how many people will benefit. The Food Bank of Central New York is remarkably efficient in getting groceries to the people who need them, and our cash donations go a lot farther with their food than what we could buy at Wegman’s and donate. $2500 has already been committed. Let’s pledge at St. David’s that by the end of June, we will get the pantry over the top. We will come up with $500.

Think about the widow of Zarephath, and that $2.59 she would need for oil, and the $1.99 she would need for flour. Think of what you spend on groceries. If your family of four, like ours in 2012, spent $9000, then maybe you could tithe a month’s worth of groceries, say, $75. Maybe you could donate ten percent of the cost of a week’s worth of groceries, say, $17.50. Or one percent: the cost of a cup of coffee. Whatever we can give, I know we can give, by the end of the month, $500 to support the emergency food needs of our neighbors, the families of the children who go to school with our children, the widows who might be living alone, anybody who needs help to make ends meet. If we do this, it will be a sign. The kingdom of God is at hand.

ENDNOTE: After not too many days had gone past, the congregation raised and donated over $1,000 to the DeWitt Food Pantry. Though us, as through Elijah, God works miracles. Let's keep it up!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Believe in miracles

Proper 4 C       June 2, 2013
1 Kings 18:20-21,30-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

In April, we had three groups of people talk to us during coffee hour – people doing, for lack of a better term, “global mission.” These were three groups of people working in, to say the least, difficult circumstances. 
  • The Sisters of St. Margaret respond to the daily needs of Haitian people still trying to recover from the earthquake. 
  • The Brackett Refugee Education Fund finds and supports the educational efforts of refugees fleeing strife-torn Burma. 
  • Dr. David Reed works with a medical clinic in South Sudan where, with medical interventions both simple and complex, this team of Africans and Americans performs miracles daily.

In order to get their work done, all three of the groups have to collaborate with the enemy. The Sisters were invited to Haiti by the elites around the Duvaliers, whose rapacious policies stripped the country bare and left people lives of violence and poverty. Accomplishing anything in that land of civil and geographical chaos is a miracle in itself. The Bracketts found, in their work with people living on the Burmese border, that that is a very dangerous place in deed; even the progressive Burmese, trying to democratize a dictatorship, would just as soon kill as look at the Muslim minority group that lives there. David Reed talked about one of the ways they keep their clinic safe: they invited enemy warlords – both sides – to receive medical treatment – eye surgery, I think. The clinic became common ground for these modern-day equivalents of the Roman centurion, a safe place where miracles could happen for anybody, on any side, in any condition.
So our gospel story today is full of things that do not make sense to us. Miracle healings. Working with and even praising the enemy. Reprehensible social relationships, like slavery. Acknowledgement of a military social structure that seems anathema to Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

This territory of contradiction is the place we are entering for the next several months, as we work our way through the Gospel of Luke. We will read many stories of miraculous healing. We will encounter many non-Jews, Roman and otherwise, who seem to understand what Jesus is talking about better than those people who would be his traditional followers. Social boundaries are crossed right and left, and all sorts of “disreputable” people – demon-possessed, leprous, women, even, are healed, included, empowered, employed, as servants of the Good News, the vanguard of the Basilea: the kingdom of God, the reign of God, even, as one scholar puts it, the Empire of God.

Jesus in the Gospel of Luke doesn’t care that he upsets people, that he shocks people by breaking the standard operating procedure. Our lesson today, of the healing of the Centurion’s slave, echoes back to a story Jesus told in his very first sermon – we read it in chapter 4 – in his home synagogue of Nazareth. He talked about a story from 1 Kings, where the prophet Elisha healed Naaman, the enemy commander, who then turns and praises God. This story got the Nazareth crowd so angry they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. And here he is again, not only telling the story of “healing the enemy” but doing it, but in front of a friendlier crowd. The Good News breaks all bounds, Jesus says. The power of God is recognized in the most surprising places. Human power structures, even those as powerful and vast as a Roman legion, are only human; the power of God to rule the world with justice and mercy and abundance and hope upends even all that.

What is a miracle? David Reed described the relatively simple eye surgeries that are routinely performed at the medical clinic in South Sudan. To those with those crippling conditions, who can never work or be productive members of their community or family, who must always be taken from place to place and cared for by other people who themselves cannot work or go to school because they have to care for these blinded people, people who cannot see the faces of those they love – for those people to have their sight restored is a miracle. It doesn’t matter if it comes with an “abracadabra” incantation, or mud and spittle rubbed in the eyes like Jesus did, or with a surgical scalpel in a sterile field: it is still a miracle. With an eye given sight, a whole community is healed.

Two thousand years ago people believed in miracles. We believe in miracles today. We believe in the people who restored us to full life, just as Jesus restored the lives of countless people he came in contact with. The Good News is not the technical aspects of what happened. The Good News is that none of us have to live like THAT any more, in fear and trembling, in darkness and despair. Those are the daily miracles that David Reed’s clinic, and the Brackett Foundation scholarships, and the patient work of the Sisters of St. Margaret accomplish. Like them, we are God’s hands, working those miracles.

At the offertory, we will add to our collection our gifts to the United Thank Offering, gifts of thanksgiving for the daily miracles in our lives. Give generously, give often. Like the Centurion, be part of the vanguard of the Empire of God.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Spirit and Relationship: sermons for Pentecost and Trinity

Trinity  May 26, 2013
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

The book of Proverbs, the scholars tell us, is divided into two kinds of writing. It is a series of lectures, interspersed with a series of interludes.

The lectures are what you expect to come from the kind of Wisdom Literature entitled “Proverbs.” They are the kinds of sayings a parent would give to a child: advice about how to live, how to prosper, how to be a good person. Practical. Time-honored.

In the interludes, however, we see a different kind of Wisdom. This is the Wisdom of the big picture. This Wisdom was around when God created the world; indeed, this Wisdom played in front of God while God created everything. Yes, that word is right there in the text. The Hebrew term which in our lesson today reads “like a master worker” could also be translated as “like a little child.”

Think of how this ambiguity allows both ideas to be true at the same time. To think of Wisdom as the “master worker” shows us "Wisdom as God’s helpmeet in creation, a craftsperson who assists God in the formation of the world."[1]

On the other hand, to think of Wisdom as a playing child, “reflects the delight that God takes in Wisdom, and that Wisdom takes in humanity.”[2] Among the people I think are wise are the Biblical scholars who can dig into a word, and find so much meaning there. Listen to this:

The ambiguity of the translation … allows both understandings to operate together, depicting Wisdom as the formative power of God’s delight. … Wisdom “is a beneficent, right-ordering power in whom God delights and by whom God creates; her constant effort is to lure human beings into life.”[3] Wisdom is the creative power of God that is embedded in the world; each created thing, and the creation as a whole, speaks of the Wisdom of God at its foundation.[4]

This dual understanding of Wisdom in Proverbs really tells us something about the nature of God, something humans are always trying to figure out. God in the Hebrew Bible is very active. God wants us to live a certain way, to behave, yes, but also to prosper, to delight, to have fun, to create. If we are made in the image of God, that also must mean we reflect HOW God is, and in Proverbs, God delights in the work of creation. Indeed, the work of creation is play, it is beauty, it is joyful. And if the nature of God is Wisdom, then this Wisdom of God is played out in the public square, in social and economic activity. It is not just about a “religious” activity. It is about life: how you live AND how you make a living. Who you are AND how you relate to the people around you. How you put bread on the table and a roof over your head AND how you make that bread and that roof into the beautiful things which would delight God.

You are right, also, if you hear echoes from the Prologue of the Gospel of John in how Wisdom describes
herself. The Wisdom of Proverbs becomes the Word of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was in God.” As the early Christians were wrestling with what their experience of God meant to them, they reached back, of course, into their own tradition for images and explanations, and here was Wisdom, right there at creation, co-present, co-eternal, and very active, drawing all of humanity and of the whole created world into a loving relationship with God. It is that very dynamic relationship right at the heart of God, at the beginning of creation, that is the Trinity: God in three persons, delighting, playing, creating, loving, and pulling us along into that dance of joy and delight.

With such an awareness of God, and of what God wants for us, how can we help but be grateful? To want to give back? To fall all over ourselves to share in this delightful abundance? We have many ways to do this.

Did not our hearts stop last week when we heard about the tornado in Oklahoma? I know that every week, every day, every minute, there are people around the world crying out for help in the midst of pain and disaster – and yes, we can help any and all of these deserving brothers and sisters. But there are times when we stop, and focus our prayers and concerns in one terrible place. Today, if you are moved and able, we can send our own prayers and donations to the people rebuilding their lives and their communities torn apart
by tornados. We will send all our offerings today, that are not part of our pledges to St. David’s, to Episcopal Relief and Development, who will put them where they are most needed.

And next week is our ingathering for the United Thank Offering. It is the Blue Box into which all our prayers and thanksgivings go. The money collected in those Blue Boxes makes a difference in the lives of thousands of people each year, through the Episcopal Church here in the US and overseas.

Wisdom draws us out of ourselves, out of our private reveries into the crossroads of life, to the gates of community, to the highways and byways. Wisdom calls us to take everything we have, from the Celebration of the Arts to the change in our pockets and give it in service to God’s world. You know that God delights in our generosity. God does a dance every time we give something away.

[1] Elizabeth Webb, ”What is the connection between wisdom and joy?
[2] Ibid.
[3] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996).. 88.
[4] Webb, Op. Cit.

Pentecost        May 19, 2013

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104
Romans 8:14-17
John 14: 8-17, 24-25

Pentecost. It’s 50 days: fifty days since Easter. Pentecost is also a Jewish feast, commemorating the 50 days it took the Israelites to get from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where they heard the law – when Moses gave them the 10 Commandments. In the Acts of the Apostles, all the disciples were in one place to celebrate this Jewish feast of the giving of the law, to give thanks for the great freedom and blessing it brought them. They were not expecting this to be the “birthday of the church.” They were not expecting tongues of fire, a proliferation of languages, a mighty wind or ecstatic revelation. They were there to celebrate the giving of the law.

Now there is a story about the giving of the law – another version of this oft-told story of the Ten Commandments (without Charlton Heston). The rabbis say “that at Sinai all Israel heard the Ten Commandments, because the voice of God was divided into seven voices, and then went into seventy tongues so that all heard the law in their own language.”[i] Could this Pentecost of the Spirit, experienced by people who knew Jesus, be then an extension of that multi-tongued Sinai? Is this Pentecost a new life-giving law, a new way by which God establishes a new relationship with us? Is this a Sinai exploded beyond all expectations? A shattering of those old stone tablets in a great whoosh of fire and wind, each of us with a direct experience of God – in our own, intimate language, the language with which our mothers spoke to us in our cradles – and yet also a communal experience of God, each of us understanding God in exactly the same way?

With Pentecost, we go into warp speed – like on Star Trek, or in Star Wars, when Han Solo finally gets that old Millennium Falcon up and running and the galaxies streak by us like so many beams of light. St. Paul understood that Pentecostal Spirit – “all who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” No matter how we got here, we’re all here now, we’re all different but we are all together, each of us indispensable to this new life-giving, Spirit-filled law that has blown in from the desert.

This story from the Acts of the Apostles is about the world as we know it blowing apart in an ecstatic, joyful, creative way. Things catch on fire because this new thing is coming into being. This Pentecost is a chaos of hope.

The world, however, seems all chaos and little hope: it’s tornado season again, with whole communities being blown apart. The latest reports on global warming reveal CO2 levels something like 400x higher than what in our lifetimes was normal. Bombs explode on streets we have walked down. Even the IRS is caught up in a scandal. How much more can we stand? Where are the tongues of fire that can show us out of this mess?

In such times, we need to hear the Pentecost story more than ever, as a reminder of what IS possible in a world gone mad. On Mt. Sinai, the law gave direction to a people lost in the desert, wandering and aimless. The law gave them a purpose, a relationship with God, a set of rules about how to behave with each other. The powerful message of this Pentecost story is that not only does God have the last word, but God is The Word – and a Word that each of us can understand. We can make a mess of things, but God’s fiery and ferocious wind can wipe it all away:

Though humans crucify, God resurrects. Though humans divide and dominate, God communicates. God has the last word, and the word is wild. It changes everything. It rebuilds broken community. It breaks boundaries and enlarges the house. It makes possible understanding where before there was not understanding.[ii]

Our Pentecost prayer is “Veni Sancte Spiritus” -- “Come, Holy Spirit.” Guide us. Show us the way. Give us a clue about this chaotic, fractured, embittered world. Enlighten our blessings. Show us what to do, for life in this world is no longer as clear-cut as it was up there on Mt. Sinai. Give us the new vision we need to face the problems of today, to dream the dreams of the world as you would have it be.

[i] Carl A. Volz, from Word and World (Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, 1990)
[ii] Nancy Sawyer, “Blogging Toward Sunday,” The Christian Century (

Monday, May 13, 2013

God at the intersection of art and justice

The Celebration of the Arts at St. David's is a remarkable event. For 43 years this parish church has turned itself inside out to welcome local artists and art appreciators. God's mission has a church, Bishop Ian Douglas often reminds us. The piece of God's mission that this church takes on is to identify the divine in the creative process, to connect art and justice, to be a place where the stories of the people of this community can be told in music, poetry, painting and sculpture. Two sermons here, from the 6th and 7th Sundays of Easter, that reflect on that piece of God's mission.

Easter 7 C; May 12, 2013
Acts 1:4-11; Psalm 47; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21; John 17:20-26

This Lion and this Dragon are replicas from the parish church in a small town in Essex, England. When Conrad Noel went to Thaxted, in the early 20th century, he went there to develop what he called the Catholic Crusade: a movement to make the church into the embodiment of the kingdom of God on earth – to be the herald, the vanguard, to make this earth as beautiful as heaven – with music, with art, with color, with dancing, with processions which gathered up all bystanders in joyful party.

And that party, for Noel, always began in church, with the sacraments, with

… the common meal, the bread and wine joyously shared among [the] people… The Lord thus chose the human things of everyday life, [Noel wrote,] the useful bread and genial wine, to be the perpetual vehicles of his presence among us till his Kingdom should come on earth as in heaven.[i]

So apt, then for this second Sunday of the Celebration of the Arts. Noel would endorse such a Celebration as we have here: the church turned inside out to show the works of people’s hands and hearts and voices. The beauty we see and hear reflects the beauty of God – God, Noel wrote, who was

… the maker of the sense of wonder, justice, love and worship; of the sense of color which delights in the flowers, pictures, sunrises and gay fabrics … of the sense of smell which rejoices in roses and frankincense; of the sense of hearing which responds to poetry and music.

All of this beauty, Noel would say, starts in the church, in this place of community and communion, of bread and wine and fellowship. The church is the community of the ascended Lord, this Lion who rules the earth, this Jesus who shares our human nature, now taken with him into heaven.

Yet if all this beauty stopped here, if we hoarded it only for ourselves, it would be corrupt and perverted. It is like that tempting and beautiful leviathan, that serpent, that dragon. Noel points out that for God, beauty is always connected to justice. Not only are there sufficient material goods to go around – indeed, the benefits of God’s commonwealth are for all of God’s people – but with that living wage goes a living beauty, and embodies a living hope: that the imperfections of the world, where want, greed, death and destruction threaten God’s creation, will be transformed, and the dream of God fulfilled.

We commemorate the Ascension of Our Lord every year, but every year it means something new. Some established order we thought was there forever is changed, gone, displaced – what we that was impermeable is now, we see, transformed into something new. At the Friday night performance, someone asked the new artistic director of the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company what had happened to that community group since it lost its performance space, and what had called him to work to revive it. “The Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company was formed in 1982,” he said, “And it’s no longer 1982.” This company which was founded to give a voice and a stage to African American playwrights
and performers found itself in a world where the best and the brightest of those playwrights and performers could achieve great heights on any stage. But there are still stories needing to be told – not the same stories that were told in 1982, and not necessarily stories that will “sell” in the way that commercial theater has to “sell” in order to stay in business. These are stories that are worth far more than that, Ryan Johnson-Travis told us on Friday night. These are the stories of our community today, a multi-cultural community, a community where people embody gender and sexuality in different ways, a whole community, not only of the “south side” or “the 16th ward” but of the suburbs and the University and the immigrant north side. These are stories of hope, of a new reality, of the dragon of despair and alluring nostalgia trampled under foot.

We’ve done a lot of new things with the Celebration of the Arts this year, and there are more new things to come. Just as the Robeson company discovered it was no longer 1982, we can readily see that it is no longer 1970. Forty-three years is a glorious run, but “what we’ve always done” can get in the way of seeing what is going on around us now, can get in the way of hearing new voices, new stories, new music – can prevent us from welcoming the new people who embody the dream of God today.

Every Ascensiontide, we are given a choice. As the disciples watch Jesus ascend into heaven, no doubt mouths agape and eyes incredulous, two men in white robes ask them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” That’s our choice: do we stand there forever, feet rooted, necks craned, lost in the glorious and beautiful past of the days Jesus was with us? Or do we become Apostles, walking out into this new world, this wild and different and multi-cultural and multi-lingual and complicated and beautiful world, with our useful bread and genial wine, and share with everyone what God has dreamed this world could be?

[i] Conrad Noel, from archival papers, quoted by Kenneth Leech in “Some Light from the Noel Archives.” Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade: A Critical Evaluation, ed. by Kenneth Leech (London: The Jubilee Group, 1993)

Easter 6C          May 5, 2013
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10,22-22:5
John 14:23-29

Even here, in this suburban garden of prayer, we sit by a river. It is a small river, yes – the fountain in the Memorial Garden – but it is the river to us. The river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God, surrounded by trees and blossoms and fruit.

In our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we see Paul and his friends in a strange city, and as they look for a place to pray, they come to the side of the river, to the springs of the water of life. It could be any river, in any city or town – and there they find a place of prayer.

A synagogue, for faithful Jews, is a gathering of ten men – ten Jewish men. A Minyan. But look: the place that Paul and his friends find is a place where women gather for prayer – all kinds of women. “All kinds of women” were certainly not the people with whom Paul and his friends would have gathered for prayer in their former lives.

But this is, of course, not their former lives at all. These are the early days of their transformed lives, when the reality of what Jesus risen from the dead is just beginning to be understood. The roof has been blown off the synagogue. All bets are off. The invitations have gone out far and wide, and people, all kinds of people, women, even, are believing that even they are welcome to sit and pray and worship God by the river of the water of life.

Sharon Bottle Souva's
wall quilt in the
Celebration of the arts
We read about Lydia because she is an exemplary Christian: she is the person of faith we should aspire to emulate. She is open to God. She listens to the preaching and teaching of the Good News, and it makes sense to her. She knows it will make her life better. As soon as she opens her heart, she also opens her home. From faith flows hospitality. From the awareness of the abundance of God’s gifts and God’s grace comes this primal response: “Come to my house. Stay at my home. Eat at my table. Let me give to you some of the good things that God has given me.”

Lydia also must have very good taste. She is a dealer in fabrics, rich, beautiful, expensive fabrics. The fabrics of which Kings make their garments. Lydia is a woman of the world, an independent entrepreneur, no doubt an artist in her own right, a woman who recognizes good goods when she sees them. Lydia would be delighted to come to the Celebration of the Arts. Lydia’s favorite 20th century novel would be The Color Purple, and her favorite character would be Shug Avery, the woman who says, “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.” The color purple that is the color of God’s glory. The color purple that is there for everyone to see. The color purple which comes from the plants which grow by the side of the river of the water of life. The color purple, bright as crystal, that flows from the throne of God.

Almost better than any other poet in the English language, George Herbert expresses the human desire to worship and delight in the beauty of God. God’s beauty is all around us, in the people we love and who love us, in art, in music, in language. We see God’s beauty when dismal neighborhoods are transformed into livable communities. We see God’s beauty when the hungry are fed and the desperate are cared for and when the prisoners are set free. We see God’s beauty when the sick person is made whole and when the abundance of God’s riches are spread among all who need them.

George Herbert was, more or less, a high church Anglican in the century when there was some tension between those who thought the Church of English should maintain some of its historic connections with medieval Catholicism, and those who thought the church should be pure, stripped bare of artifice and pretension and privilege. Herbert died in 1630, and in 1640 the Puritans won the English Civil War. The high churchmen, aristocratic or not, were thrown out, and the plain Word of God reigned.

But I think it is a mistake to think Puritan Calvinists were dry as dust. The great reformer John Calvin rooted his theology, much as George Herbert did, in the glory of God, and in the joyful duty of each believer to bask in that glory and beauty. But yes, the Puritan reformers were concerned with lots of things – political things, powerful things – and George Herbert, as we see in these poems we are singing and listening to today, gave up power and politics to sit in a garden like this, to listen to river of the water of life, and to write down all he heard and saw and smelled and tasted. The beauty of God filled his heart. The music of God filled his ears.

God has given all of us all of these things. The roof has blown open and all bets are off. It is time to take all that we have, and give it all away.