Preaching it!

A Message of Love

   As you go through this transformation of becoming a Deacon you find yourself doing things you never imagined you could do--like preaching a sermon. 
   As much as I'd like to say "Boy, am I skilled at this!", the fact is the process you learn at the School for Deacons (sfd.edu) is equal parts of research and prayer. Each time I start working on a homily I suffer doubts of having anything to say, but somewhere along the process the message comes.
   I preached the following at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist Church in Lodi, CA on Sunday, October 29th, 2017:

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18
Psalm1
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Matthew 22: 34-46

      In 3rd Grade my teacher, a nun in full black habit, started preparing us for our First Confession. Now what an 8 year old would have to confess is still beyond my comprehension! She handed out a list of sins, and explained that if you die with certain ones staining your soul you go straight to the bad place, but with others you stand in the hot waiting room until the spin cycle is done (OK, that last part is my interpretation!). It sounded like you were doing your laundry before you went on a long trip!
   Now, handing out this list of sins is like banning a book: If you want to increase your book sales, try having someone ban it! The 8-year old me was sitting there trying to figure out what fun there might be in the lesser offenses, when a thought occurred to me:
   “Sister! If I’m on my way to Confession and get hit by a bus, is it good enough that I was on my way there?” “No, you would still have sins staining your soul” she answered.
   I raised my hand again “Sister! If the bus hits me after going to Confession, then would I be OK?” “Oh yes,” she replied, “your soul would be all white!”
   I should have stopped there, but even back then I didn’t know better! “Sister! If God loves us, then why would he let the bus run me over while I was on my way to Confession?”
   That did it! Out of the class I went.

   Little did I know that another Roman Catholic, a priest and scholar no less, had a similar idea long before. Martin Luther had been studying this Jewish revolutionary named Paul of Tarsus, and drafted a list of 95 propositions to be the basis for an academic debate concerning the forgiveness of sins and the selling of indulgences. On October 31, 1517 (500 years ago this Tuesday) Luther mailed his 95 Theses to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, and over the next several weeks posted copies on churches in Wittenberg  as an invitation to scholars for a debate.
   The operator of a new technology called the printing press copied Luther’s 95 Theses and they began circulating like a wild fire all over Europe, sparking what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther would go on to develop the idea that we are saved through God’s grace and faith alone, and not by our works or deeds—a radical idea for a Church that believed in centralizing authority!

   The people of 1st Century Judea lived under a Roman controlled theocracy. Local synagogues were dominated by the Pharisees, the Sadducees controlled Temple worship, and the Chief Priest was appointed by the Roman Prefect. In a land where most people couldn’t read, the scribes could read Scripture and record legal documents.
   Over time these religious leaders had replaced the idea of faithfulness to God with scrupulous adherence to the 613 commandments in the Torah. How could illiterate people know which law to follow, or which one they violated, or how to make amends? Of course the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes were happy to help them find right relationship (righteousness) with God.

   Then along comes this Rabbi from Galilee, Jesus, who stirs up the people with this talk of the coming Kingdom of God. Crowds start following him around the countryside, disturbing those in power.
   The scribes and Pharisees hope to trap Jesus in a debate when they ask “Which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus answers them in a way they can’t argue with, and goes on to stymie them by asking them to explain how the expected Messiah could be David’s son when David calls him “Lord”.
   The followers of Jesus who are listening to this exchange are suddenly filled with joy! “’Love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself?’ That’s the whole law? Hey! I can live that way without having to memorize 613 commandments of the Torah, or asking the Pharisees!“
   The people burst out laughing in joy, and also at the “dear-in-the-headlight” expression on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, who become angry and murderous for being embarrassed in public by this upstart Rabbi.

   For some reason I see Jesus trying to contain his smile throughout this whole event. Was he being intentionally funny, or did the scribes and Pharisees walk right into it? I’m not sure, but for me this idea of the fully human Jesus is what I most easily connect with in my faith.
   It is difficult to envision God our Creator who is both within us and without, and not part of this space-time continuum, but somehow involved in it.
   We have the Holy Spirit of God that reaches out into the world to inspire people to do crazy things—like becoming a deacon, or a priest!
   We have an image of Jesus sitting on a thrown waiting to return to Earth to put all things in order, like we have pictured in our beautiful window above us.
   While acknowledging the full divinity of Jesus, I also envision the fully human Jesus—the brother I can relate to—the friend I can cling to.

  This is the Jesus who was fearful in the Garden; who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus; who was angry at a fig tree for having no fruit (Mk 11:12-14); who in a fit of exasperation called one of his closest friends “Satan”! (Mt 16:23)
   This is also the Jesus, though, who enjoyed a good meal with friends and strangers (Mt 11:19); loved to tell good stories with meaning; changed water into wine at a wedding feast because his mother told him to (John 2: 1-12); and yes, he laughed and had a sense of humor, just like all of us. This is the Jesus I can relate to! This is the part of God I can have a conversation with!

   Before I started at the School for Deacons I spent a year in discerning this call. I was really reluctant to follow this path.
   I prayed, “You can’t really mean me, God! This clay pot you formed (Isaiah 64:8) was smashed into pieces early on against the hard, granite wall called reality and I’ve been trying to glue it all back together ever since.”
   God said to me, “I am the glue.”
   I prayed, “But I don’t even know if the pieces are put together right. I must look like a complete mess.”
   God said, “Have you ever heard of Picasso?”
   I said “Yes…”
   God said, “He is one of my favorite artists. You look great to me!”
   I said, “You think everyone is your favorite artist!”
   God said “Yes, that’s right!”
   I prayed again, “But Lord, this clay pot is full of holes and cracks, and if you pour anything into it it’s just going to make a mess all over the place.”
   God said to me, “That’s right, now you’re getting the idea. I’m going to pour my love into your heart. You’re not supposed to keep it contained—you’re supposed to spread it all over the place—let it leak out!”

   You see, once you realize that God loves every one of us, that each of us is the most important person to God, your heart can’t help but to erupt in a joyful shout of praise! I am important to God! Every single one of you—every single human, even the ones out there--are important to God! All of creation is important to God!
   How can we respond to God’s love for us? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
   We are called as followers of Jesus to love every single person we encounter in this life, and find ways to reach out to them. I am answering that call in this path I am walking—in this way I am living—in this commitment I am making.
    How will each of you respond to God’s call?

   Country artist Hillary Scott has a song called “Beautiful Messes” that makes me smile whenever I hear it. It goes:
We ain’t perfect, no
We ain’t even close
We got holes in our hearts
We got scars we don’t show
But all that baggage we keep on dragging around
Ain’t it time we start laying it down?
Lay it down at the foot of the cross
Give it to the one who can carry it all
Even at our worst, to him, we ain’t lost causes
Just beautiful messes.
Amen.

Perseverence

Not my efforts, but yours, Lord!

   Working full time and going to the School for Deacons is challenging in its own right. Inevitably family and life issues are thrown into the mix and you have days when you wonder if you'll make it to the next Weekend, never mind the end of the semester.
   Depending on where I worked that day, I use the drive time home by listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Pray As You Go, a Jesuit Ministries program that uses a combination of music and scripture reading. Taking a bit of your day for prayer and meditation is essential to shifting gears to School and Church modes.
   It was during one of these challenging times that the Spirit helped me with the following homily for Evening Prayer at the School for Deacons on Saturday October 21, 2017:
2 Kings 25: 8-12, 22-26
Psalm 110: 1-5; 116; 117
Matthew 11: 7-15

   Expectations! I’ve come to wonder recently if expectations should be the 8th deadly sin—you know, after pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Or could it be it’s some kind of compound substance of the seven?
   People seem to have this expectation that if they’re late for a meeting or appointment, everyone else should get out of their way, and become angry when they don’t!
   You plan a party or dinner for a group of friends or family and expect that everyone will be happy to come, until you start getting the questions about “What’s being served?”, or “Are you inviting this one?” causing you pull your hair out in frustration.
   We elect politicians to represent us and actually expect them to act in our best interests, and—Well, we can all see what happens with that!
   In Jeremiah’s time the people of Judea expected that God would vanquish their opponents. After all, Jerusalem and the Temple had been standing for over 400 years since the time of Solomon! Their mighty God would come forth from the Temple and smite all those heathen out there, right?
   Most of them ignored the warnings of Jeremiah. They had consolidated land, wealth, and power into the hands of the privileged few, ignored the plight of the lower end the of the social and economic spectrum, and had turned the worship of Yahweh into a good luck charm, while forcing Jeremiah and Baruch into hiding for daring to speak God’s truth.
   After the formerly privileged few had been carried off to Babylon, the walls of Jerusalem torn down, and the temple and other buildings had been razed and burned, one of the people who had listened to Jeremiah, Gedaliah, expected that the Jews who remained could now see that Jeremiah had been right. Gedaliah agrees to meet with Ishmael to talk some sense into him. Ishmael promptly assassinates him, and then in terror runs off to Egypt, with the hapless Jeremiah in tow—Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke of the emptiness of expectations and instead preached the unwelcomed truth of God!
   By Jesus’ time the Jews had come to build their own expectation of what the Messiah will be. Even John the Baptist, the one who said “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Mt 3:2) has been caught up in this expectation of an earthly, militaristic Messiah who will free them from Roman oppression. John sends messengers from his prison cell asking “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
   Rather than answer directly, Jesus sends them back with the admonition to tell John what they have seen and heard: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good new brought to them”. There is nothing earthly, or political, in this pronouncement!
   Jesus asks the crowd who is with him “What did you go out to the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” At that time, King Herod’s emblem on coins was a Galilean reed waving in the wind. Can you imagine our President going out to live in the wilderness dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating a diet of locusts and wild honey? Yes, the reaction from Jesus’ crowd would have been the same.
   Jesus goes on to explain that John is the greatest of the prophets, but that even the least of those who believe in this new Kingdom of God are greater than John. The poor and outcasts are greater than all of Israel’s prophets?? What joy must have filled their hearts to hear this! What a complete re-write of expectations!!
   Rather than a Messiah that will conquer the Romans and restore power to the Jewish people, Jesus talks of the violence done against the Kingdom of God by people who demand that God should be subject to their wishes, and not that they be subject to God’s way of living. In the hearts of these people Jesus plants new hope, and new life, but also a new expectation of persecution and rejection.
   I ask myself “What are our misguided expectations of God today?” What quickly comes to mind is the end times pronouncements supposedly based on the Book of Revelation: that any day now the faithful will be Parousia’d up into the sky and God will smite all those disbelievers and abominations that are out there—all those people that have been declared cast-out, un-clean, not-Christian!
   We wander through a society that teaches greed is good, that the purpose of life is to collect more toys. That those who have money are blessed by God, and those who have nothing are cursed and meant to be that way—that there’s no reason to clean up the mess we’ve made on this Earth since God is going to take all of the ”saved” Christians up into the sky. Does any of this sound like the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus?

   In our course on Christian Ethics we read a reflection, out of The Green Bible, by Bishop N. T. Wright, a prominent Bible scholar. Contrary to end-time signs of “The End is near!” or “Heaven or Hell: It’s your choice!” Wright’s reflection is entitled “Jesus is coming—Plant a tree!”
   Wright points out that Paul writes in Romans Chapter 8 “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,…” (8:19) and also writes “We know that the whole creation had been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption…” (8:23-24)
   Does this sound like a creation that is going to be utterly destroyed? Would creation be waiting “with eager longing” to be wiped out? This sounds more like creation is yearning to be restored to new life! Just as we hope to be saved through the gift of grace by God, creation, too, hopes to be restored by the coming of God’s Kingdom.
   God’s Kingdom is already leaking into the world through the hearts of her followers. The people of the Jesus movement are called to be the advocates for God’s justice and restorers of God’s creation.
   As future deacons we are called to expose the emptiness of expectations of greed and destruction, and call people to a vision of new hope in the restoration of God’s creation and a new age of humanity as the beloved caretakers of God’s Creation.
   In spite of our brokenness God calls us as heralds for his Kingdom, prophets of his Truth, and caretakers of all of his creation. Like all of God’s people before us we may face rejection and violence, and yet we give thanks for all that God has done for us.
   In this journey to become deacons the words of Psalm 116 speak directly to us:
“How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”
Amen.
  

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