Sunday, December 28, 2008

Does Jesus build rollercoasters?

     I know that if I were in charge of the lectionary, and the world for that matter, things would be so much better organized. We have these ridiculous peaks and valleys built into our lectionary. We go from the excitement and anticipation of Advent to the joy of Christmas to the nadir of Stephen’s martyrdom and the deaths of the Holy Innocents. And this year, our corporate life has reflected this roller coaster a bit more. We had the extra dip associated with the passing of Barb before the pinnacle of Christmas which was, in turn, muted by the ice storm. In some ways, I can so relate to Peter. Lord, I love the mountaintop experiences. Let’s stay here! And even in His Church, there is a built-in reminder that our lives will have spiritual peaks and valleys. There will be times when things seem that all is fine; and there will be times when things seem to be falling apart at the seams. Our liturgical life reminds us that God is every bit as present in the good times as in the bad times. Our liturgical life reminds us that He can redeem the bad in life just as He redeemed Christ’s death on the cross.

     Her name was Patty. To back up the story a bit, we had a Christmas service scheduled for Christmas Day. About a dozen or 15 people had asked if we could. Naturally, I agreed. Unfortunately, only one family showed up. Needless to say, Connie felt a bit awkward and a bit selfish for dragging me out of the house on Christmas Day (her words). I told her that others had asked and that it was fine. We gave people some time to arrive and then decided to start the service. Just as I finished my what-passes-for-a-homily-when-only-four-people-are-present, she walked in.

     “I am sorry to intrude, but are you having church today.” Yes ma’am, you just missed the homily. “Is it ok if I come in, I am not a member.” of course. “Let me park my car.” So we waited. Patty came back, joined us for the Eucharist, but did not receive nor come forward to receive a blessing. After Connie and the family left, I asked Patty what was wrong. “Nothing.” Ma’am, I may not have the best eyesight in the world, but the blind can see you have a heavy heart this day. “I do not want to burden you with it.” Ma’am, that is why they pay me the big bucks, to help lighten your burdens. She paused, chose her words carefully and said, “My daughter died six years ago today.” I am so sorry, how? “An asthma attack, right in my arms. And I am a nurse to boot, and I could do nothing for her. She died right in my arms, not breathing, scared. Just like that.” I am so sorry for your loss. There was a long pause.

     “Aren’t you going to tell me that it was for the better or that God needed an angel?” No. “Aren’t you going to tell me that I need to get over it?” No. “Why not?” We both know that such answers are wrong. God did not take your baby because He needed an angel; God did not plan this; God certainly knows that the pain it has caused you was not for the better. “How can you say that so certainly?” Ma’am, He of all people knows what you are feeling. “What do you mean?” This baby and wonderful birth that we celebrate this day ends on Calvary. God of all people knows what it is like to lose a child. And I wonder, has He maybe lost two because of your daughter’s death? “Yes. I have been a bit upset with God for the last few years. It’s been hard to keep that faith because His churches are never open the day I need Him most. That’s why I was so excited to see cars in your lot. You were the first of 10-12 churches I tried that is actually open today.” We continued to talk for a bit. I would like to think, as she left, that just for a moment, she has begun to re-evaluate her understanding of God and His love of and grief for her loss.

     We as a church are reminded of that grief felt by all parents who have lost children on this day. Some 2000 years ago, King Herod commanded that the threat to his throne be eliminated, and so all the youths in Bethlehem were killed. Can you imagine the tragedy? Can you imagine the hurt? Where was God in all that mess? How can a loving, nurturing God allow such an event to occur?

     For us as Christians living today, the story is a stark reminder that there is opposition to God and His plan of salvation. In other parts of the world, there may still be martyrs, but here the opposition is no less present and no less discouraging. Who wants to be labeled as “religious” or a “Jesus freak” or a “Christian wacko”? In all times and in all places, there are people and forces so concerned with their own agenda that they act in opposition and rebellion to His message and His gift of salvation.

     Yet, this story reminds us that God’s Will will not be thwarted and that He never forgets. The Holy Family flees as instructed so that the babe may grow to walk the road of the cross and resurrection. And, though history seems to have forgotten the deaths of these babies who were slaughtered for being born at the wrong time, God has caused the story to be recorded and remembered by all His people. Maybe we should not be too surprised. Like those parents of the Innocents, He knows what it is to lose a child. And, as He has with everything in our lives, He has promised to redeem even a tragedy such as this. And so, after feeding us and armoring us, He sends us back out into the world to witness His love and His faithfulness and His ability to redeem all things. Maybe, just maybe, the lectionary editors understood this as they were selecting our readings.



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Message

     Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. Why do we gather this night? Why do so many of us brave the ice, the cold, the idiot drivers that do not stop at the 4-way stop sign to gather this evening? For some of us, this may be one of the few times that we actually drag ourselves to church. What do we hope to see? What do we expect to see? What do we hope to feel? What do we expect to feel?

     No doubt many of us gathered here tonight hope to feel joy. No doubt many of us hope to feel peace. No doubt many of us hope to feel love. Given the uncertainties of life in the world right now, sometimes we long desperately for such wonderful, warm feelings. It is awfully hard to feel joy or peace when you are worried whether your place of employment is going to lay you off. It is awfully hard to feel peace or joy when you are battling a disease or illness in your life. It is awfully hard to feel peace or joy in your life when you are forced, by the season, to confront the various family dysfunctions present in your relationships. Perhaps you are made to feel like a freeloader because you lack the resources to purchase the gifts others in your life so strongly desire. Perhaps you are forced to confront behaviors of addictions or abuse which, if you had your preference, you would avoid altogether. And so you come to see this wonderful thing that has taken place, to search for those wonderful feelings which every commercial on television shows every person and every family having. You probably come longing for the joy, the peace, and the love so desperately missing in your life. And do you find it?

     In the hustle and bustle of the season, in the midst of the advertising, in the rush from party to party, it is easy to fall into the trap that this season will be the perfect one. And when it does not happen, the depression sets in. Brother and sisters, seekers and doubters, what did you come to see? An innocent babe in a nativity scene? A choir of angels lifting their voices to God and your heart? A sense of calm? A sense of peace?

     We often forget, but the world into which He was born was every bit as hectic, every bit as dark as our own sometimes seems to be. A despot, Herod, was on the throne in Jerusalem who had no consideration for human life. An empire had conquered and oppressed God’s people. Life was hard. Life was cheap. And nobody seemed to care.

     And into that world came this wonderful, awe-inspiring babe! Into that dark world shined this amazing light! This wonderful babe taught the shepherd and us that God cared. This wonderful God Incarnate reminded each and everyone who saw him and who later heard the Gospel message that they were loved by God! And let us not forget, this innocent babe came to walk the road to Calvary, the road of the cross to save all of God’s people. Life may not have mattered to Herod or the Romans, but it sure mattered to God! You life, your security may not matter much to your company or your bank, but it sure matters to your Father in heaven. His presence in that manger so long ago reminds each of us just how much we need him, His walk to Calvary reminds us all how much He loves us. And secure in that love, safe in that knowledge, you and I can face the world and shine like these candles we are about to light and so draw the world, dark and discouraging as it is, to His saving light!



Monday, December 22, 2008

Barb's last sermon . . .

A number of parishioners asked me what I thought of Barb's passing. Why would God take her in the Christmas season? Don't you think it was better that she passed quickly and suddenly? What will her family do? How can this ever be redeemed? These are just a few of the questions that I heard. Some were easier to answer than others. But the question about redemptive death struck me the most. I heard that particular question most often. On the one hand, I could state "redemptive death -- that is a story that sounds strangely familiar," but I also knew what was meant. Many of us knew Barb and the issues she faced in her daily life and work. For many of her friends and families, there will be a tremendous void, a tremendous sense of loss at her passing. Yet I wonder . . .

During the course of the end of the "regular season" and the beginning of Advent, we have been looking closely at the reminder that Jesus' return will be swift and unexpected. We have heard the parables of the wise and foolish young ladies, we have heard His warning of being like a thief in the night, we have heard Him remind us that He will come suddenly like a bridegroom, we have read His stories about the coming judgment, and we have heard His warning to "be ready." Over the course of these readings, we have looked at the life to which He calls each of His disciples, and we have considered how He should find us when He returns. We should be clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, remembering the forgotten. We should be serving those to whom Jesus ministered when He walked the earth in human form.

We have also talked any number of times that one's life is the best sermon that anyone will ever give. In many ways, Barb's life and death were a wonderful sermon. She visited the prostitutes, the imprisoned, the homeless, the forgotten veterans, the poor in our schools, the aged, the infirm, and any number of other groups looking for a way to serve them. I cannot begin to recount the number of people who came to visit me and began their conversation with "This crazy lady invited me . . ." or "This crazy little lady told me I should come here . . ." Immediately, I knew who had invited this person before me. They called her a crazy lady because she went to places no sane person would ever go! Prostitutes were shocked she came to their hotel, the homeless were shocked she came to the shelters, and the paroled were shocked she had been to the prison. Invariably, I would be asked "Why would she ever consider visiting or helping someone like me." But, her ministry was what first drew them to the love of God. Did any accept His offer of salvation because of her ministry? I cannot say. God only knows. I do know, however, when she met her Lord last week, He found her doing the ministry to which He called her. That Sunday, she had asked us to fill out cards to send to veterans recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Once again, Barb reminded us of those whom many of us had forgotten, many of whom wonder at this time of year whether their sacrifices cane be redeemed, whether anyone truly cares for the suffering they have born on our behalf.

Yet Barb's passing also served as a stark reminder of the coming judgement. Her passing suddenly was not unlike His future return. It was sudden and unexpected. Because of His delay, we are always tempted to think that we still have time. "i do not need to apologize to _____________ because I can do that the next time I see him or her." "I do not need to repent of _________________ and reconcile myself to the one harmed by my actions because I can do it another time." "There is always tomorrow to set things aright." "I do not need to worry about ministering to a co-worker or a family member because there will be time to do that next week, next month or next year. Barb's passing, as sudden as it was, reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have time. Every moment that we have, just as every possession, every loved one, everything we have, is a gift of God. Barb's sudden passing reminds us that we all need to examine whether we are good stewards of all that He has given us, including our time.

So often we Christians fall into a trap of thinking that there is no urgency to our mission, that we have all the time in the world. Yet Barb's passing reminds us of the fallacy of such belief. Those who saw her on Sunday saw Barb in good health. She had no outward sign of that vessel that was about to burst. To all outward appearances, she was in excellent health, particularly for one 68 years-old! She was even ministering, praying and worshipping just like always. And just like that, she was gone. Now, we as Christians can take hope in the promises of God. We know that He can redeem all things, even death. And we can make our alleluia at her grave, though we will mourn her passing. But even her death can serve as that last sermon to us. If He returns now, how will He find us? Are we prepared to meet Him this moment? Have we repented where necessary? Have we reconciled with those whom we sinned against and those who sinned against us? Have we done what He has asked of us? If our answers to these questions and others is no, then for what are we waiting?

Advent is that season of the year which causes us to look with amazed joy at His first coming and with joyful expectation at His next. In many ways, Barb's death is a reminder of that season. Her life reminds us of the calling we all have as His faithful disciples, and her death reminds us of the urgency to which we are all called to act on behalf of His ministry. Will we make excuses for why we do not want to accept His calling, or will we embrace the callings He gives us as His faithful laborers and stewards?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We are like those who dream . . .

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. Restore our fortunes, O Lord. We lived this on Wednesday night at the Community Meal. We had not been serving food for more than 15 minutes, and I had been approached (as had Charlie and Larry) about the meal we were providing. I would have never dreamed that somebody would do this for the homeless. A few shared their stories. Some were down on their luck; others had never had any luck. But each was amazed that we would ever serve a feast like that and, better still, give them choices. You know what they say, Father, beggars cannot be choosy. And, of course, a number of individuals asked us why we continued to do this. You guys have been serving this since I have been coming here. Why do you keep doing it?

In a way, we are like the psalmist from our reading this weekend. You and I know what it is to be burdened by guilt, to be chained by sin, to be a prisoner of our jailing. Better still, you and I each know what it means to have been restored, to have been freed, to have been loved! You and I can look back on the work of Christ, on the terrible cost to Him, on the love that He had for each of us and realize what has been accomplished on our behalf. And we can dare to dream! We can dream of what an eternal life in the presence of God will be like. We can dream about that wonderful wedding feast to which He calls each and every one of us. We can dare to claim the Creator of heaven and earth as our Heavenly Father, our abba, our daddy. And we can proclaim what He has done for us. We can laugh. We can shout for joy. Even at the grave we can make our alleluias because we know the wonderful things He has done for us and the many more promises that He will keep. We can celebrate because our fortunes have been restored. We are like those who dream.

Yet, Advent reminds us that we live in the time between, that time between the already and the not yet. We look back on His first advent with joyful wonder and look forward to His return with expectation. Yes, Christ has come and fulfilled God’s plan for salvation, but He must come again to restore all things as they were meant to be. And so we are called to live in that time where there is still sowing with tears, where things are not as they were meant to be.

We do not expect this world to be perfect. Indeed, we understand that this world is far from what God intended. Diseases strike our bodies, sudden death grasps us, relationships fail, jobs are lost, bullies assault us, spouses abuse us, children fail to listen to their parents, economic systems dissolve before our eyes, homes are lost, dignity is often attacked, and, like our Lord and Savior, we weep.

But we follow in His footsteps. We, His disciples, know that we serve the Lord. We know that He keeps His promises. So in the face of life’s vicissitudes, we travel faithfully. We carry on with our roles in salvation history, and we endure the race He has given us to run. Though our budgets might be stretched, we dig a bit deeper for His sake. Though our time is often overspent, we find a bit more time for Him. Though the world testifies that He has lost; we find ourselves clinging ever more stubbornly to our faith in the One who was anointed by God and given the power over life and death. And we go out sowing with tears; we go out weeping, carrying the seed. Yet, the Lord promises that one day, all those who carry on in His name in faith will one day weep with songs of joy and one day come in again with joy, shouldering our sheaves.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, for a few minutes the kingdom of heaven broke into Davenport Iowa this past Wednesday. For just a brief time, the forgotten, the marginalized, the tearful and the lost were reminded that they can dare to dream. For a time, we were His body, buying His food, preparing His feast, and serving abundance in His Name. We were His voice bringing comfort to those most in need. We were His disciples, teaching others what a servant life is truly like. We were His witnesses, testifying to a crowd too familiar with death and sadness that He has freed us from all our chains and bondage. We were His light, shining in that dark place of human existence. For a brief moment in history, those whom society has forgotten were reminded that their Lord and Savior loves them dearly, that He has not forgotten them, and that they can dare to dream because He has offered to redeem them as well!



Thursday, December 11, 2008

I need to brag about my people one more time . . .

     I received a phone call from one of my Vestry members last week, Sue, who with her mother is in charge of our work this month at the Community Meal. Thanks to the work of one of our saints, Thelma, all the churches in Davenport are able to prepare meals for the homeless, the hobos, and the other needy, marginalized citizenry in our community. Now, many churches have one assigned night each quarter, but, in an ackowledgement to Thema, we are one of nine churches (so I am told) that are allowed to participate each and every month. Woe be to my successor who decides to give up some of that ministry!

     Anyway, Sue called with a problem. Over the course of the past couple years, St. Alban’s has become very intentional in providing a meal rather than just food. In Novemeber of the past couple of years, we have provided turkey or ham with all the trimmings. We have had comfort meals of meatloaf, meatballs and the like. We have even had theme meals of “Italian” or “Mexican” or foods from some other such ethnic origins. I have been known to bring the Seder to the homeless the past couple of years. What started out as a fun idea was recognized to feed the recipients in ways we never imagined. People broke down because the meatloaf “was just like mom used to make” or the lamb was “way too expensive for a bunch of rejects like us.” And we, serving, recognized how important that call to an abundant feast was to the lost and forgotten in society. Sue’s problem was that she had a feast idea and no money to accomplish it.

     It was both exciting and heartwrenching to get this phone call. Sue recognized the very real financial difficulties facing our congregation. Yet Sue had listened to her pastor and to her Lord. He provides for all our needs, and His people needed to be reminded of the abundant life to which He calls everyone. Plus, the readings for the end of the “green season” looked specifically at how our Lord should find us when He comes again, feeding His hungry, visiting the sick, giving drinks to the thirsty. I told Sue to ask. If God thought it was a good idea, He would bless it.

     Sue threw the idea out there for the congregation. Once she thought she had enough money, she called a local grocery store which we, as a congregation, like to frequent. Fareway is closed on Sunday’s so that its employees can spend time in worship or with their families. Anyway, the guys in the meat department gave her a discount. Sue had collected 75 cents more than she needed!

     Later in the week, as we heard that the numbers at the mealsite had increased, Sue asked again for money. The short story is that enough money was raised to provide a feast of Prime Rib for everyone at the shelter that night. Others stepped up and provided the baked potatoes, the mashed potatoes, the sweet potatoes, the corn, the beans, the pies, the gravy -- everything necessary for a Christmas feast!

     To say that those present were overwhelmed would be a gross understatement. They had a choice in their meal. Different potatoes, meat cooked to differing degrees, desserts. Many commented that it was like going to a fancy smancy restaurant. And they gave me my sermon for this week. Sunday, we will read psalm 126. Thanks to the efforts of those members of St. Alban’s and to the joyful response of those whom we fed, I am once again humbled and reminded that we are “like those who dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” For a moment, for the briefest of moments, mercy and righteousness kissed at a shelter in Davenport, Iowa. For a moment, all of God’s people were fed and glad indeed! During Advent, we are called to look expectantly toward His second coming and the fulfillment of all of His promises. For just a moment, a group incarnated that idea and reminded that “those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”

Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The audacity of hope in Christ

What a world we live in! Terrorists take over a famous luxury hotel in Mumbai, India and specifically target British, American, and Jewish citizens. The result is the death of 172 individuals (at least as of the writing of this article). Pirates roam the seas in the Middle East stealing ships. Muslims specifically target Anglican congregations in Nigeria, burning churches and houses and killing entire families. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, droughts, and other natural disasters seem to occur almost daily. We are fighting two wars each and every day, a fact of which many in our congregation are very much aware as their loved ones are involved in the fighting. Our economy may be headed for the worst crisis seen since the Great Depression. People are losing jobs; people are losing homes. And human life has become so devalued that we now go to toy stores armed with concealed weapons. Human life is so devalued that we think nothing of trampling a WalMart greeter on Black Friday (now, truly aptly named) in a mad dash to get that "great deal" on that item that will likely be even cheaper come December 26. Churches and other non-profits are feeling the pinch of a receeding economy. As the need has become greater, our resources have seemingly become fewer. And we, as members of Christ's one holy and catholic Church have the audacity to claim that there is meaning, that there is hope? What in the world are we thinking?

Three of our readings this weekend reminded of the hope we should have when Christ is our Lord and Savior. Isaiah wrote of the Lord, "you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity." The Psalmist wrote of God, "how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink." Certainly, both of those authors understood what it was like to feel abandoned by God, to know how ridiculous it may seem to proclaim a redeeming God when the entire world testifies against such a faith. Bot were writing to a people who felt anything but that the Lord was in control, that their Redeemer was reaching forth His sovereign hand to lift them from life's morass.

And Jesus, in our Gospel from Mark this weekend, reminds us that these bad things will occur. "In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken." Yet, what scares the world ought to spur us to greater vigilance and greater urgency in our mission. “When you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates . . . Therefore, keep awake!” What in the world is He talking about? Who can sleep well in the midst of such pain and suffering? Who can’t help but wonder what all is going on? And who cannot help but feel a bit embarrassed proclaiming a saving Lord in the midst of such hurt and pain? If He is who He say He is, if He truly is a God of love, how can there be such senseless suffering?

Part of the purpose of our lessons this week was to remind each of us that hope requires great faith. Specifically, our readings remind us that we must place our faith in God. Both Isaiah and the psalmist were writing to a people that had been disposed of their inheritance. For the people of Israel, the outward sign of the covenant with God was possession of the Land which He had promised to their patriarchs and matriarchs. Yet, Isaiah was reminding them that God had kept the covenant. They chose not to keep the torah, so God have given them the curses. And the Psalmist eloquently expresses that feeling of abandonment and isolation that came from that exile.

Yet both writers from the Old Testament remind us that God is a redeeming God, that He is a saving God. Isaiah reminds us “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” And the Psalmist reminds us that if God would “show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Both express that attitude that God can accomplish all the He purposes, no matter how out of control events seem to us to be. And Jesus reminds us of this hope explicitly in His statement to His disciples. “When you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Jesus reminds us that each day places us closer to His eventual return in glory and the restoration of this world.

Advent is a season in the Church that is both backwards and forward looking. We look back at that wonderful night, when love came down and was incarnated not as a king or emperor, but as a babe in swaddling clothes. And we look back on that beautiful, Silent Night conscious of the cost of our redemption. That beautiful, innocent babe will walk the long, arduous road of Calvary. But, when the story should have ended, at least in worldly terms, God stepped in again. God conquered even death on a cross! Still, His job is not yet complete. There will be a time in the future when He comes again to fulfill all that He proclaimed since the foundation of the world. And so, Advent calls the Church to look forward in expectation of that event. Just as we look back on our Savior's birth with awe and humility, we look forward to His return, confident that He will restore all things as they were meant to be before human sin marred His wonderful creation.

Fittingly, then, the first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Hope. We remind ourselves that our hope is, as it always has been, in the redeeming Lord, Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves that our patriarchs and matriarchs had faith in God and His purposes, and He credited it to them as righteousness. We remind ourselves that even in the Exile, He was being faithful and would not be thwarted. We remind ourselves that when He was Incarnate in the world, He told us to expect the world to testify against His reign. Yet, the same God who has always redeemed His people promised each one of us that He would one day restore us and the world. Only a God who can conquer even death can make such a claim. Only such a loving God who would give up everything to save His people is worthy of such faith. Only such a redeeming God can give us each hope in the face of the tragedies confronting the world. Keep Awake! He is at the Gate!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Princess and Princesses in His kingdom

     I shared with those present at the two services this weekend some of the incongruities regarding the commentators' thoughts regarding our passage from Matthew's Gospel lesson. The schools of thought tended to be either very joyful or very critical. There were very few commentaries, given the time that parish priests have to do reading, that written that were ambivalent about the passage. On the one hand, one set of commentators seemed to rejoice that good works were necessary to be judged a sheep rather than a goat. The is no requirement of faith. There is no need for "church trappings." In fact, some commentators wondered whether the disciples, apostles, and early church simply misunderstood Jesus when they declared Him the Son of God. To love God is to simply love others. Church is superfluous. Faith is unnecessary.  

     Another group of commentators seemed to relish either for or against the idea that we are saved by what we do. Those that argue in favor of works righteousness hear Jesus' command to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, and to clothe the poor as the requirement of faith. Of course, those who seem a bit overly sensitive to ideas of works righteousness argue vehemently against such understandings.  St. Paul and others throughout the history of the Church remind us that faith without works is worthless.  So, good works are good and important, but they only point the way toward the One walked the road to Calvary.  They do not ensure that you ad I will be judged any better than the unbelievers.

     What a number of commentators seem to miss about this passage, however, is the pre-requisite for both these wonderful works and that love of others. At the center of Jesus' message this week is the reminder that a right relationship with Him should be first and foremost in our lives. How can such be true? Think of the judgment scene which He describes. Where are the witnesses? Where are the lawyers? Only the judge is there. Only the Son of Man and each individual are present when this judgment scene takes place. And the judge looks at everyone before Him and makes an infalliable judgment. This person is a sheep; this person is a goat. The testimony of each individual's life points them towards His left hand or His right hand. There is no need for witnesses; there is no need to even speak. The heart is lived out in one's life.

     How is such a thing possible? Consider Jesus' teaching. The righteous are called sheep and set off to the side that will experience the blessings of God for all eternity. Such a person recognizes that God has come among us, lived with us, died for us, and has promised to raise us. Such a person discovers that love of God necessarily leads to love of neighbor. Everyone whom we encounter in life, every single person with whom we come into contact, has been created in His image. How we treat them, how we love them reflects how we love Him. When we allow our brothers and sisters to languish in poverty, to languish in hopelessness, to be forgotten, we are allowing ourselves to forget God. Worse, when we ignore people in that condition, we forget the condition our Lord assumed when He took on human form. Though He could have come among us as a king, with attendant wealth and glory, He chose, instead, to come among us as the son of a carpenter in a hick town in a backwater province. Though He could have chosen to mingle only with the powerful, He chose, instead, to eat with and teach prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the poor, cripples, possessed, and ceremoniously unclean. He came as one of our least and served among our least to remind us that in God's kingdom there is no least! All are loved by God. All have been imprinted, like that denarius which He had to borrow for illustrative purposes, with the image of our Creator. And how we respond to His love is best demonstrated by how we respond to His images in our midst. But, until we know Him, we cannot see Him in the face of others. Until we know Him for who He is, we cannot serve Him with intention. He may well wash our feet, but He does so beneath our notice. He may well die for our sins on a cross, but we miss His offering in the hustle and bustle of our lives.

     Similarly, if we reject Him, if we accept the argument that He is not the unique Son of God, all our works do us no good. The goats in the narrative ask of Jesus when they did not serve Him? Usually, we take that question to be rhetorical in nature as if the speakers are saying, "We would have served You, but we did not see You." and so we believe that the goats did no service. Nowhere, however, is such an understanding necessarily implied. Just like those who "prophesied in His name," "taught in His name," and "healed in His name" and were condemned to remain outside the feast, these goats may be doing some works. They are simply serving themselves rather than their Lord when they do them. They, perhaps, imagine some scale of justice where their efforts determine that they were god and worthy of salvation.  Such efforts are simply futile. We cannot serve ourselves and expect to save ourselves. Either way, whether we have rejected Him or have attempted to "earn" His grace, those of us that are goats are doomed.

     Loving our neighbors, loving strangers can be costly. There can be a strain placed upon budgets, upon time, upon relationships, and upon abilities. Sometimes, the service of others can seem outright impossible. There is so much need; we are so inadequate to the task at hand. Yet it is that relationship with Jesus which gives us the power to conquer all things in His name! If we believe He is who He says He is and if we accept Him as Lord over all our life, He can accomplish anything through us, if we are simply willing to serve. And such faithful service itself serves a purpose. How we serve, how we love may be the best sermon that another of the peoples ever hears or sees.

     For the past few weeks, we have been looking at a number of parables and examining what it means to live a life worthy of His disciple and to live in expectation of our Lord's return. What does the prepared life look like? In this last of those teachings and, in fact of this church year, we are reminded of our callings as people who live between the advents of Christ's coming. He has identified Himself for us among the poor and the forgotten, and He as instructed us to care for one another as He Himself first cared for us. This teaching, brothers and sisters, reminds us of the costly love He bore for each of us. To be His princes and to be His princesses means that we must die to selves, rise with Him, and serve others as He has himself done. There is no other calling like it in this world! There is no love like it anywhere else to be found! And there is no future to be found in anyone or any place but Him!

     And such a faith, such a life is easily demonstrable in our midst.  Such a believer takes home the underwear of the homeless and hobos and washes them because "no one should ever be forced always to wear dirty underwear."  Such a group of believers, when budgets are tight and when income seems to be down, recognizes the need in those around them and commits their finances to some relief, expecting, believing that He who owns everything will provide for His people and ministries in His name.  Such a faith, such a life finds itself on its knees in prayers, not hoping, but certain that God is active in the world today and looking for those faithful intercessors who will simply ask Him to act in the beloved name of His Son.  Such a faith, such a life trusts that all its ministries are God's and that He will make sure that they accomplish His purposes.

     This week we celebrated the end of the church year and Christ the King Sunday.  We reminded ourselves that we serve the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Better still, we reminded ourselves that He calls us each to be princes and princesses in His eternal kingdom.  But we also reminded ourselves of the cost of His kingship.  To save His people, to tend His flock, He walked the road that led to calvary.  When He calls us, when He places on our hearts a particular ministry, how can we ever say "no" to such a king.  If He was willing to die for us and if He has the power to redeem all things in our lives, even death, why would we ever want to say "no"?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

You and I can be far from ordinary . . . in Christ!

     Far too often, as I shared this weekend, parishioners and people like to think that they are too "ordinary" to do any real ministry for God. I am often told that "my contributions really don't make that big of a difference." The thought is that others have more of whatever it is we think we need to be successful in His service. Others have more money to give. Others have more time to give. Others have talents that are far more germane to the needs of St. Alban's and its ministries. Nothing could be further from the truth! God always equips those whom He calls. How do we know this? Think on our parable of the talents this weekend in Matthew's Gospel.

     In the story, the slaves are given talents. The amount of money tied up in a talent was extraordinary. One of the commentators that I read this past week claimed that a talent of gold was worth more than 650,000 bushels of grain in the Ancient Near East. That is an example which might fall on deaf ears in the big cities back East or on the West Coast, but we in the Midwest know what a bushel is. Imagine, you have been placed in charge of a sum of money equal to 650,000 bushels! And in Matthew's story, one slave received 5 talents, one slave received 2 talents, and the other slave received "just" 1 talent. Jesus' parable contained an unimaginable sum. Few in His audience would ever earn a single talent over the course of their life's labors, and the master was giving the one with the least ability a talent. What an amazing fairy tale!

     The master returns and asks for an accounting. The first slave made 5 talents with the 5 he had been entrusted, and the second slave made 2 with the 2 he had been entrusted. Both are praised by the master. "You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master." One has made the master the equivalent of 3,250,000 bushels of grain worth of wealth; the other has made the master merely 1,300,000 bushels worth of wealth. Yet the master's praise of both is equal. Where we might expect the master to be more pleased with the first slave, the master praises them both equally. Better still, the master considers this unimaginable wealth to be "a few things." Jesus' audience hears about unimaginable amounts of wealth, and the master promises now to place his trustworthy slaves in charge of "many things." How much wealth does this master have?

     Unfortunately, not everyone earns the praise of the master. The one slave, who likely represents the priests and Pharisees, takes the one talent and buries it. He does absolutely nothing with it. In fact, in hiding it rather than simply investing it in the bank, he does not even earn normal interest on the money. The Pharisees and priests have been placed in charge of God's flock, and how have they behaved? They have chosen, in most instances, to be unfaithful stewards. They have not called the people back into right relationship with God. They have not behaved as they have been instructed. Rather than serving the people as God calls His leaders to do, they have acted as if they are the ones entitled to the service of others. In this parable, Jesus once again reminds them that there will be an accounting at the end. The faithful servants will enter into the joy of the master; the unfaithful servants are considered worthless and thrown into the outer darkness. The future for the unfaithful is certainly bleak.

     Naturally, God's mercy is ever evident. Jesus speaks in parables to that those who can hear, hear, and so that those who refuse to hear, do not. If we judge ourselves counted among the unfaithful, there is still time to repent. All we need to do is ask for His forgiveness and the His grace to become faithful stewards of all that He gives us. But what of our initial question? Is it possible to be ordinary in God's economy? Is it possible that we cannot accomplish amazing things in service to the true Master?

     I was reminded this week by an observer of our parish how we seemingly live this parable constantly. Last week's Community Meal was only the most recent example. Some of our members have been gifted with some financial resources but not a lot of time or ability. They chose to give money to purchase some of the food. Others among us were more than willing to cook, but they lacked the resources to purchase a quantity of food sufficient to feed so many people. So, we were able to buy the food using the money from the first group so that the second group would be able to cook. Naturally, we needed people to serve the food. Some may not have had the money nor the time to cook the food, but they had the time to serve the homeless, the hobos, and the other "forgottens" in our society a wonderful meal. So they showed up to serve. Who was more faithful? Which group was more important in God's economy?  Each, even those who had a hand in funding, cooking, and serving, was faithful to their Master's call. Those with resources gave of their money, those with ability cooked, and those with time served. Each was faithful in a little thing, yet look at the result. As many of the servers remarked during and after the services yesterday, the recipients were thrilled with our feast. Many have had their fill of soup and bread for sustenance. Yet, through the faithfulness of Christ's servants here at St. Alban's, a feast of ham, beans, potatoes, pies, and other "essentials" was provided. For thirty minutes on a Wednesday evening in Davenport, Iowa of all places, abundance showed forth in poverty, light broke the darkness! Such is the work and offering of Christ's body to which you and I are called.

     Better still, it is not only confined to our church or to our country. Much was made last week of our May bike ride entitled "Waters of Hope." Parishes from all over the diocese gave as they were able. Some parishes were able only to provide prayers to keep the riders safe and alive, other parishes were able only to give financially, still other parishes were able to offer only their hospitality, and other parishes were able to do a bit or all of these. Yet, without the faithful ministries of each of these parishes in our diocese, the ride would have failed. Had Grace Albia, St. Paul's Creston, St. Thomas Sioux City, St. Paul's Indian Mission, St. John's Mason City, or St. John's Dubuque not agreed to host and feed us, where would we have ever been as nourished and welcomed as we were? Had not Trinity Cathedral offered its van for our use, how would we have ever been able to transport people and supplies around this diocese?  Had countless individuals not offered their financial gifts, medical gifts, or their local knowledge of "biker-friendly" roads, how would this effort have ever been accomplished, and accomplished in safe conditions? Had not a dozen or so individuals not have been willing to travel to Swaziland, how would the villagers where the purificators have been placed ever learn how to operate them? Without the ongoing work of the leadership of the Diocese of Swaziland, would we ever have known where to place those purificators? And because of all that faithful effort, 60 water purificators and 40 solar panels were placed in villages around Swaziland. Not a single one was broken by the airlines or custom agents during transport! Now, as many as 60 towns the size of Durant have clean water! If that does not preach, encourage and exhort, what will?

     Simply put, God has no ordinary servants! God has no ordinary sons and no ordinary daughters. He has equipped each of us for the ministries to which He has called us. They might seem insignificant to us, but to God they are priceless. Better still, as we live as faithful stewards of those gifts He has given us, He promises to place us in charge of "many things." Of what has He given to you that He now asks you to use in His name? To whom has He called you to demonstrate His boundless love, His eternal bounty, and His awesome power? Pray for the grace to accomplish His will in all our lives. Pray that we each hear Him say to each one of us "well done, good and trustworthy slave . . . I will place you in charge of many things. . . Enter into the joy of your master."


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Shack

     At the urging of my father-in-law, my father's pastor, and two of my closest friends from seminary, I finally sat down last week and read The Shack.  I suppose, had I read Eugene Peterson's comments, I would have gotten to this book in my reading stack far much sooner.  Could it really be as good as Pilgrims' Progress?  I find him to be among the best pastoral theologians currently writing, so I had to find out.

     I will not give the story away, but as a pastor who deals far too often with the question of "Where is God in this suffering?," I must confess that I found the book to be a God-send.  The story and theology is easily written, and it is open to anyone who has had to question the presence or existence of God in any unjust suffering situation.  As I dealt this morning with a lady whose mother is dying (likely today), I heard Papa's and Jesus' words far too clearly and, I hope and pray, I was a better pastor for hearing them.  

     The book hit home especially hard for me as I know far too many Mac's in my life.  I desperately wish this book had been around when my small group in seminary dealt with the deaths of Samuel and Josiah, the firstborn sons of Bryan† & Lisa and Scott† & Sarah respectively.  By God's grace, we did ok, but such an understanding would have only enabled us all to be better pastors  in those tragedies.  We loved and still love one another, and that made a huge difference, but some knowledge might have made those tragedies a bit easier to accept and understand.  By the time I met Tone the truck driver, I was far too familiar with the the grief and the redemptive possibilities, but such a book would have been great to give to Tone.  And, well, the grief unfortunately has reared its ugly head in a few other situations since Tone.

     Is the book's theology perfect according to Brian†?  No.  But then again, Brian† is by no means the perfect theologian.  I do think that the spiritual wedgies doled out by the author are well considered and very appropriate.  Papa might not live up to one's understanding of our Father in heaven, but I could certainly seeing Him revealing Himself in that way just to tweak us a bit when we become too sure of ourselves.  And Jesus is not a blue-eyed, fair-skinned and of Norwegian stock?!  Somebody better edit this book quick!  -- lol.  

     Is this book worth your time and prayerful reflection?  Only if you or someone you love questions the presence of God in seemingly unjust suffering . . .

     Enjoy!  And bring a couple tissues . . .


Spiritual Wedgies and feasts

     This was one of those weeks when I was unsure which sermon to use, so I found myself using both. If 8 o'clocker's and 10:15er's compare notes, they might discover that the sermons were a good bit different. At 8 o'clock, I challenged those present with the question of what oil is in their lamps. If they were trying to fan their own flame with their own oil, they were like the foolish maidens in our story from Matthew this week. At the second service, I looked more at the theme that history has a point. We often act like apes on a treadmill. We sometimes fall into the trap that our daily lives are ordinary. Yet God reminds us that He created and that there will be an end. None of our lives are ordinary! Probably, I will try to reconstitute both on my blog this week, as the e-mails and calls have already begun on both sermons, and some from each service saying the other seemed more like what they needed to hear. As we are preparing to enter Advent and are looking at Matthew's teachings on the return of Jesus, it might be a good thing for us to look at what Jesus is saying about His return.

     In our reading from Matthew 25 this week, Jesus tells us the parable of the Ten Virgins. Most of us see the meaning behind the parable. The virgins are the Christians, the bridegroom is Christ, the lamp is the light of Christ in us, and the feast is the great wedding banquet to which God has called all of us. What might not be apparent are the spiritual wedgies which are doled out in the readings. Among them are the ten virgins, the problem of the oil, and the fact that the door to the feast is eventually closed. How are they spiritual wedgies?

     Consider the virgins. What distinguishes them from one another? Jesus does not describe some as pretty and others as ugly. He does not say she was wealthy and she was poor. All are deemed to look alike, at least with respect to appearances. All seem to be pure, at least from appearance. What separates them is their wisdom or foolishness. What should shock us is when we apply this to our lives. We in the church may look alike. We may come to church once or twice a week. We may tell people we are members of a church. We may even participate in some of the ministry and outreach of the church. Yet, some among us are wise and some are foolish, and the foolish ones will be excluded from the feast! Some among us, maybe even some reading this message will be excluded from His feast. Going to church and appearing to be a Christian does not mean that we get into the feast. What does?

     Our oil is the simple answer to that question. In whom or in what are we trusting? If our oil of provision is the god of money, we are foolish. If our oil is the god of pleasure or what feels good, we will not get in. Even if oil is our own efforts and labor to be "good people," Jesus is warning us that we will be excluded from His great banquet. What separates the wise from the foolish? The wise realizes Who it is that provides the oil. Jesus has died and been raised from the dead so that each of us can die to self and be raised to new life in Him. In other places, Jesus will remind us not to place our light under a bushel basket; He will remind us that we cannot have life apart from Him. So, the second wedgie of our parable should have us thinking about who or what provides our oil. If we think that we are getting an invitation because we are "good people" because we try to earn our invitation by serving at Angel Food Ministries, or at Community Meal, or by giving copious amounts of money to St. Alban's, or in any way other than through our faith in Christ Jesus, we are likely to be as disappointed as those virgins who were not admitted after the feast had begun in Jesus' story.

     The final spiritual wedgie ought to be the fact that the time eventually runs out. So often, we think of God as a merciful God, and rightly so. We sometimes plead with God like St. Augustine and ask Him to save, just not to do it until we are done having fun. We tend to think that we can put off telling a friend, a loved one, a co-worker, or someone else about Jesus because we have plenty of time. "There is always tomorrow." Yet, we forget that God's mercy, just like life, has an end. At some point in the future, there will be no "tomorrow." Eventually, at some point which may well surprise us, our lives will come to an end. We may be fortunate to see our death approach and to be able to make our decision. At other times, however, death may come suddenly. Jesus' return will be like that. Eventually, at some unknown time in the future, He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Those judged as wise will be called to the feast; those judged as foolish will be left outside the feast. All will have had the same invitation. All will have had access to the same oil. Some will have accepted; some will have rejected the invitation and the oil. And, there will be consequences to that decision to accept His invitation or to reject or put off His invitation, eternal consequences.

     I have remarked a number of times over the past few years how spiritual wedgies are God's way of making us uncomfortable. Just when we think we can afford to be complacent and near the end of our race, He grabs us by the back of our spiritual underwear and gives us a tug or a pull. We find ourselves squirming at what we have discovered about ourselves. The wonderful thing about God's wedgies is that they are corrective, not humiliating. Unlike our school friends who may have given us wedgies to tease us, God tugs on us that we might remember our real focus, our real calling. And the Gospel news is that He is there to tug over and over until this world ends. What if, in considering this reading or yesterday's sermons you find yourself more allied with the foolish virgins? Is it too late? If you are reading this or Matthew's story, mercifully there is still time. All He asks is that you repent, die to self, and let His oil light your lamp and so draw others to Him. It really is that easy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

God's ordinary is extraordinary!

     For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you -- Jesus' words at the end of the beatitudes ought to both flatter and scare us. The words should flatter us because Jesus is lumping His people in with the prophets. Yet, when we get over the initial excitement of being included in such an austere and profound group, we should probably be a little frightened. Think of the suffering of His prophets. We recently finished the narrative of Moses in the RCL. We know others were imprisoned, hounded, kept in cisterns, and reviled. Who wants a part of that? Further, how can someone consider themselves truly blessed (made happy by God) when they are suffering such injustices? I suppose I should back up a moment and comment on the Beatitudes themselves.
     Among other things, the Beatitudes teach us about the ethics of God's people. We are called to humility, to mourning, to be reconcilers and to faithfulness to our Lord. In each description, Jesus says that those who practice the ethic He commands will be made joyful by God. It seems a bit counter-intuitive. How can a mourner be made joyful? How can a peacemaker be made joyful when neither disputing party can agree on anything? How can the scales of justice ever equal out for one who is merciful? The truth is that, of our own doing, no joy is possible. Jesus uses the word blessed to remind us that the joy is a gift of God. So, are we looking to some distant joy?
     In one sense, we are looking to a final joy. When Jesus comes and remakes the world after His last judgment, His people will no doubt be blessed. But Jesus seems a little more focused on the here and now. How can you and I and all who claim to be His people ever claim to be blessed in the face of life's tragedies? The answer is profound and, yet, simple. We serve a redeeming God! Only such a God, who can redeem even death, can allows us to stand at a grave, make our alleluias, and look to the future where we can be with our departed loved ones in full communion with our Lord and Savior who made it all possible. Only such a God, who has bestowed upon His people undeserved, unmerited grace, can serve as a spring of joy in life's vicissitudes. Only such a God, who first showed each one of us mercy, can inspire us to find joy in sharing that same mercy with those who have wronged us. Jesus' list goes on and on. God has demonstrated those very aspects, those very behaviors to us. When we earned His wrath, when we earned His punishment, He showed us His grace and His mercy. Better still, He has called each of us into a relationship which empowers us to do the same for others in His Name!
     So, how can we be happy in the face our own particular problems? We can be happy by reminding ourselves who it is that calls us into relationship with Him. We can remind ourselves that, though we might be sorry what our sins cost Him; He happily paid the price for each one of us to break us from our prisons and separation from Him. We can be happy, though we do not deserve such accolades, He has chosen to name us among His prophets and send us into the world to do His ministry.
     Appropriately, this is our reading for All Saints' Day. You and I on this special day are called to remember the work He has done for us, the work He has for us to do, and the loving audacity and joy of His charge. He has called you and me to be His prophet! Despite knowing our deepest darkest secrets and sins, He has chosen to work through every one of us who submits to Him and accepts His offer of mercy. God has chosen to work through the ordinary, and what an amazing choice that is! You and I might argue that we are not worthy of such responsibility and accolade in His kingdom; yet that is precisely His reward and His promise. Think back in your life. Who led you to Jesus? Was it a magnificent prophet such as Moses or Elijah? Or was it a parent? A Sunday school teacher? A co-worker? A friend? A pastor? Were any of them extraordinary? Or were they approachable people with a joy you needed to discover? The fact is that in our ordinariness we are called by our Lord to show forth joy, joy that comes from knowing that He has redeemed us all.
     This past weekend, we sang "I sing a song of the saints of God." It is a joyful song which reminds us of all the saints in our lives and in the world around us. It ends with the words "and there's not any reason, not in the least, why I shouldn't be one too!" Where in your life is He calling you to be a prophet and a saint? Whom has He given to you to shepherd into His kingdom? Where are the fields the Master has planted you to work? Be thankful He has called you, and live the life to which He has called you. Who knows? In the All Saints' Days ahead, maybe someone will remember you when they sing that song of the saints of God because you will have been the prophet in their life who called them into relationship with their Lord.


Monday, November 3, 2008

I sing a song of the saints of God . . .

     I did a dangerous thing this weekend during the sermon: I praised my parishioners. I say it is dangerous because, inevitably, someone usually feels wrongly ignored and sometimes people begin to relaxing thinking they have “done it.” But, I also think it needed to be done. Given the resulting pindrop silence and tears and discussion, I know it was a sermon that came from God. Part of my decision to preach about the saints at St. Alban’s Davenport revolved around their care of me and my family the past couple months. Some have allowed me to vent and worry over my son who broke his jaw and knocked out his teeth; all have tried hard to minister to my wife and the kids during this event. Add to that the recent celebration of new ministry and the outpouring of love and sarcasm which so defines these Godly people. Then, there was clergy appreciation month, and the last Sunday of October. I received a couple cards every week during the month, and they gave us a cake which even my horde could not consume in a couple of days. Thank you’s seemed too shallow and too personal. Of course, like any parish anywhere in the United States, we are dealing with the uncertainties of the current economic malaise. John Deere, Sears Manufactring, Hahn Industries and Alcoa may well be forced to cut back. Some are dealing with diseases. Many have relationship issues. Not a few think they are unloveable. And our reading this week was Matthew 5 in honor of All Saints’ Day.

     So I told stories. I had a number of them from which to choose in only the last couple weeks. St. Vern had entertained anonymous young girl who had been sent home for school for dressing too “devilishly,” whatever that means. It certainly was not bad enough no to invite her into the church. As God would have it, the young girl was the daughter of one of St. Vern’s former students. More than two decades ago, St. Vern had planted a seed that God would only now let him see flourish a bit. The former student called. She knew that the “Mean old Mr. M” to whom the priest had referred was her former English teacher. She called, thanked him for his work with her, and shared her story. She is dying of a bad heart. In fact, she should have died last month. But she wants to see the daughter graduate in the spring. And she worries about her daughter. As it turns out, the daughter will likely lose a mother to a bad heart and an aunt to cancer all before she ever graduates high school. But, the mother rejoiced that she could regale the daughter with stories from school. Better still, the daughter knows there is someplace she can go when she wants to rail at God in her eventual frustration and anger.

     I could have talkd of St. Sue. She asked a boy in World of Warcraft if she could add his father to our prayers. The son agreed thinking there is no way in the world she would do it, let alone make sure her priest knew what was happening. After some recent events, there was some worry about the safety of the father. As God would have it, I was online when the events surfaced. I knew his frustration and that of his family. And still, a few days later, all he can say is “I can’t believe she really did it and you guys paid attention.” He even thanked me for helping him understand what his family members were experiencing. For a few moments, he was able to act like an adult in the face of some horrible emotions, and it was noticed by those whom he loves most. And, as he said this weekend, it turns out his dad is just fine.

     I could have talked of St. George. St. George is a retired military officer employed at the Arsenal. A couple of times over the past year, he has shared with me some of the psychological challenges facing our veterans. One change in the way we conduct warfare is that we no longer ship them overseas via long boatrides. Soldiers have literally been in Davenport and Baghdad within 72 hours of each other. The problem with the quick transportation is that our soldiers get no time to debrief and de-stress. In prior wars, the men could share with each other what they saw. Now, they are thrown back into society without so much as a “by your leave.” To be sure, the military doctors do the best that they can, but we are left to help families pick up their lives. Had it not been for St. George and his passion, I would have never been able to help another WOW friend. You see, his wife had recently returned from service to her country. And they were experiencing the normal problems of readjustment. Dad and the kids had gone on with life while she fought. Dad and the kids made do without her. She returned to find that they all had changed and that she had as well. Part of their problem was that she needed to talk. Men might be reticent to talk, but women sometimes need to express everything they are feeling. Were it not for St. George, that family might have been split up. At least, thanks to his insights and a nosy priest, they are getting some help. And everyone knows why they are acting the way that they do.

     I could have spoken of St. Larry. St. Larry has struggled mightily in some aspects of his life. His workers have not behaved well. Alleged drunk drivers have acted in a way to endanger his livelihood. Yet, through it all, St. Larry has sought Jesus. How would Jesus handle _______? And when he cannot think of an answwer, he calls his priest. You might think it gets old, and 5:30am phone calls are not my favorite things, but it is amazing to see somebody trying to live his life displaying the mercy he knows he has been shown by God.

     I could have spoken of St. Charlie, again. Together with his wife, St. Sherry, and his mother, St. Mary, the three of them are making a tremendous impact in the life of a neighbor. She lacks the resources to feed her family, so they use their resources to feed them. All three of them get to experience the thankfulness which comes from serving someone who desperately needs it.

     I could have spoken of St. Mac and St. Maxine (her Christian name is Jackie, but Maxine seems to suit her more). The two of them have enabled us to teach a number of people in our midst to fish.

     I could have talked about St. Bev and St. Linda, who show up to weed the prayer garden.

     I could have spoken of St. Ron or St. Jeff, who selflessly volunteer their time (in the case of St. Ron it was more than 2 decades of time) mowing the yard.

     I could have spoken of St. Wanda or St. Linda, who seemingly never tire of cleaning up the messes of others.

     I could have spoken about St. Robin or St. Julie, whose senses of humor and sarcastic wit sometimes leave a pastor nearly breathless from bellylaughs.

     I could have talked about St. Jane, who sees God most often in the sacraments of this low church setting.

     I could have talked of St. Jack, who, as any long-suffering Cubs fan here in the Midwest, embodies the patience of Job and lost causes of Jude.

     I could have spoken how St. Jan, St. Robin, St. Polly, St. Marylea, St. Ellamae and the rest of the Intercessors have taught me much about prayer and patience before His throne. Like me, they chafe from time to time, but they recognize the importance of bringing everything to God in prayer.

     I could have talked at length about St, Nicole who, in one day, was forced to deal with some Christians who doubted her salvation, a child who thought she celebrated the “Devil’s birthday” with a bit too much verve, and herded those real devils in her choir all in one day! And still, she prayerfully selects the music each week and sets the tone for our worship.

     I could have spoken of St. Jennifer, St, Judy, or St. Julie who faithfully serve the hungry in our midst and in our community at the end of our line each month for AFM.

     I could have spoken of St. Thelma, who, in many ways, set the spiritual tone for this parish and for St. Gay, who nobly took Thelma’s torch and started the next leg of the relay.

     I could have spoken of St. Michelle, who labored faithfully on behalf of our ECW and our youth these past few months.

     I could have talked of St. Connie who dutifully humors her husband in the wilds of WI and returns to fill in wherever needed in what ever ministry upon her return.

     I could have spoken of St. Michelle, together with St. Mitchel and St. Melanie, who taught us all a bit about unjust suffering this past year.

     I could have spoken of St. Barb, who simply goes where God calls her, no matter how stupid it might seem to her when she stops to consider it.

     I could have spoken of St. Karen, who tolerates, sometimes amusingly and sometimes agonizingly, the rantings and musings of her husband.

     I could have talked of St. Fred, who tries to meet any need of which he is made aware.

     I could have gone on and on. The saints in my church try hard to do as their Lord commanded loving Him with everything and loving their neighbor as themselves. A full three dozen have jumped at the opportunity to feed the hungry through AFM. Through their generosity, a number of them have enabled us to help those on food stamps in our area strethch their budgets and learn “to fish.” And their smiles and faithfulness have not gone unnoticed by those being served!

     A number of the saints at St. Alban’s contribute their change to help buy bus passes for the women at Winnie’s Place. Though they will likely never meet any of these battered women, the continue to pray and support them as they have ability. It may be coats, toys, books, food, soap, or any other item we take for granted (like loose change) that someone always thinks of for the ladies and children at Winnie’s.

     The saints at St. Alban’s also know how to put on a feast and remind the forgotten of society that we are all invited to a party the likes of which this world will never see! Those in charge of the Community Meal do their best to plan a menu. The cooks step up to make the meal each month. And the servers show up with smiles to remind the homeless that they, too, have been formed in the image of God. And all labor so that the priest can simply mingle and chat with whoever wants to talk. You and I might take fried chicken, or meatloaf, or fluff, or any number of everyday ordinary meals for granted, but those whom these saints serve are reminded by these feasts of loving mothers or grandmothers and are, for just a few minutes a month, comforted in their distress and hunger.

     Best of all, these saints mentioned and others who are not, live in the world. We deal with broken relationships, with addictions, with worries, with cares, with hurts, with angers, and with all of life’s vicissitudes. In the midst of the lives of these servants are some agonizing pains. But, better still, there are amazing evidences of God’s grace. Sure, we have our fights. Sure, we don’t always get along as well as we would like. What family does not? But all of the saints here realize that they serve a Lord who first served them, and all the saints here recognize that it is only a redeeming God, who has called them into an eternal relationship, who can enable them in their ordinariness and daily lives to become a saint in His name.

     And best of all, I am called to serve among them. As the priest, I often get to see the fruits which they never see, to see the hurts which they never see, to see the hope that they never see, to see the hopelessness that they never see, to see those things that people would keep hidden if they had a choice or others would not notice if they could help it. This week, our diocese will gather together under the them of “A Dedicated Life.” I can think of no other body that is so committed to living out its calling. Some may equal, but it would be difficult to find one that exceeds the saints gathered at St. Alban’s. And to think -- this is the merest shadow of the life to which He calls us in the world to come. In some ways, I cannot wait to see what His kingdom looks like, but I will settle for now with ministering with His saints here at St. Alban’s.

Christ's Peace,

Monday, October 27, 2008

Never since has there arisen anyone like you . . .

     This was a strange and busy week. It was strange in the sense that there were some unusual events occurring here. Among the most unusual were some of the conversations. Far too many people, I later reflected, wanted to argue with me whether they had been "stamped" like the denarius in God's image. To be sure, not everyone put it in those terms, but it was an attitude beneath the surface of a number of conversations this week. "I know God can use anybody, Father, but I have this particular sin. . ." "I know God can redeem all things, but you see, Father, I have done some really bad things in my life." Believe it or not, some of the stories were rather mundane. I know everyone thinks that their particular sin makes them particularly unlovable (and unique!), but the truth is that each one of us has more than a few sins of which we are ashamed. And, as God goes to great lengths to remind us, all sin, from white lie to murder to idolatry, makes us unlovable in His eyes. We are only made acceptable in His eyes through Christ's redemptive work.

     Our reading from Deuteronomy reminds of us of the significance of sin in our lives and the view with which God has of it and us and of the view with which we human beings should have of God and of themselves. Much of the book of Deuteronomy reminds us of our offenses against God. And much of the instruction (torah) even mitigates against the sin that God knows is present. For 33+ chapters of Deuteronomy, God reminds Israel (His people) and us (His people) that what makes them and us special is nothing intrinsic of ourselves. Rather, it is the One who has chosen each one of us that makes us (Israel) special. Yet, in the midst of this reminder we are also given an important teaching: God must remind us of the dignity of all human beings while guarding against the pride of human beings. We seem to understand the need for guarding against our pride, but often we seem to forget about the dignity with which we were created. God, I think drives home this point in our Old Testament reading this week.

     "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses." No one who follows in God's salvation history is like Moses. Moses is unique. Indeed, he will only be surpassed by the Son of God as a prophet for God's people. Similarly, though, you and I are unique! Never again will there be anyone like you or like me. Though the Scriptures spend a great deal of time reminding us of our sins, there are within its texts a number of reminders of the dignity with which He expects us to treat one another. Beginning with the book of Genesis, each one of us is reminded that we were created in His image. Our sins may blur the image a bit, but each of us was created in His image. And from that point forward, from time to time, God reminds us of that essential truth. Statements like "You were wondrously fashioned" and "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you" are scattered throughout the Bible. Even Deuteronomy, throughout its instructions which deal with a number issues regarding the poor, reminds us of the dignity with which we are called to recognize in the weak, the victim, and the outcast.  And what a wonderful teaching! God knows each and every one of us by name. He knows the hairs on our heads. He knows our doubts, our fears, our needs. He knows things about us that even we do not know. That is how much He loves each one of us. He even knows how much we needed His Son to save us. Even during those last temptations on the cross, when we tempted Him to come down with the words "if You are the Son of God, save yourself," He chose to stay and make our salvation possible. Though the pain must have been unimaginable, and though He knew that you and I would come along later and act as if we did not believe in Him, still He loved each one of us enough to stay and make reconciliation with our Father in heaven possible. And now He is preparing that place for each one of us before He comes again! For all eternity, you will be you because you are unique in God's eyes.

     So often we think that we are not special, that we are ordinary, that we would not be missed. Others get more credit at work. Others are more famous athletes or students at school. Still others get to choose spouses from more prospective suitors. We see ourselves as bland and uninspiring. We forget that we were created in His image. Yet God sent someone on His behalf to call each one of us to Him. Perhaps it was a parent, a teacher, another loved one, a pastor, or a total stranger. The fact remains that He sent someone to teach us about His love for each one of us. You mattered that much to Him, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. And you and I no doubt think of that person or those persons as true princes or true princesses in His kingdom. Better still, He reminds you and me that we are unique in His salvation history. No one will ever arise in God's people who is like you! And just as He used ordinary people to reach you with His saving Gospel, He may well use you to reach someone else for His kingdom! God loves what we think of as ordinary. Remember, He came as a infant, not as a king! He came as a servant, not as a Lord. If ordinariness is good enough for Him, who are we that we should disperage how He has fashioned us?

     Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about sin. Yes, we should rightly be concerned about it and our attitudes towards it. But every so often, as we and He guard against our pride, we need to remember the value He places on human dignity and upon us. There are no ordinary sons and daughters of our Father in heaven. Each son and daughter is unique in His eyes. Never since has there arisen anyone in God's people who is like you! Thanks and glory be to God!


Thursday, October 23, 2008

A green shoot in the field . . .

     I often complain that I spend a lot of time tilling the soil, spreading the manure, and watering His crops and seldom ever getting to harvest.  Sometimes, though, He feeds me when I need it most.  Today was one of those wonderful examples.  I had just talked to a priest in the diocese whose loved one had been diagnosed with cancer.  We had chatted for a bit longer than I had intended.  Then the phone rang . . .

     "Who have you been talking to all this time?" the voice asked.  I knew the voice, so I gave the answer and the why.  "I'm sorry, Father, I had no right to intrude.  I was just making conversation," she said.  I told her I understood and asked what I could do for her today.  She wanted to know if I could find another needy family for a unit from Angel Food if she gave a gift of one.  I asked if she had someone in mind.  "No, no, nothing like that.  You might not remember, but you helped me get started in Angel Food Ministries over a year ago.  I was one of those people you gifted a unit to help bridge that first month.  I have done it every month since.  This will be my last month on food stamps.  And what I have on the card, I do not need.  I thought maybe this would be a good way to thank God for the blessing you and your church gave me.  And maybe someone else will find the same hope I have found."

     Just like that, on a cold, rainy day in Iowa, He burst in!  Sometimes, as that fellow priest and I were talking, our Lord can seem like a horrible boss.  We are dragged away from family, He seldom lets us see the big picture of all that He has us doing or has planned for us, and far too many of those whom He has called us to serve never seem to appreciate the work we do in His name.  Yet, every now and again, at times which seem random, He lets us see that His kingdom is coming closer, that some hearts are being transformed in His name.  Sometimes, He needs to remind us that He is good, all of the time.  All we really need to do is labor faithfully in His fields.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whose image do you bear?

     I was struck this week as I was watching Evan Almighty of how the secular world sometimes understands God better than His people. For those that have not seen Evan Almighty, I would say that it is worth the rent. It is a silly, predictable movie, but it has a serious theological side to it as well. Without spoiling the details for those who have not seen the movie, Evan is instructed by God to build an ark. Evan questions whether such an activity out to be done, questions his sanity, and even questions God. At one point in the arguments, God reminds Evan that we often overlook his love in many of the stories of the Bible. And, as Evan's defenses are nearly broken down, God reminds him that he loves him. "No matter what happens to you, I always love you," God declares to Evan before Evan embraces the task at hand. If you know Steve Carroll, you know that there is a very funny side to the shenanigans. But there are also some serious consequences. Evan's family thinks he is nuts, his closest friends and advisers think he is nuts, the neighbors think he is nuts, his co-workers think he is nuts, journalists think he is nuts, and even the emergency responders think he is nuts -- though, admittedly, the presence of so many animals give some of the characters pause. The cost to Evan of obeying God is a loss of reputation, prestige, and even financial security. And yet, because God has promised, Evan knows that there is more. Just when things seem to have played out as the world has expected, Evan remembers that God loves him. "There must be more."

     Our reading from Matthew this week ought to have comforted us in the same way. Matthew's story is about the denarius and whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees and Herodians think they have trapped Jesus. If Jesus says that it is lawful, the common people will hate Him. If Jesus says not to pay the taxes, the very temple elites whom Jesus has been condemning for the past chapter or two will be able to turn Him over to the Romans for inciting treason. Understandably, these two groups that hate each other think they have outsmarted the bumpkin from Nazareth. Yet look at the details.

     The God of the universe, the Lord of all has to bum a denarius from the crowd. Can you imagine? In this day and age where the market meltdown, the housing bubble and the looming economic recession are at the forefront of every newspaper, magazine, and television newscast, the God Incarnate Man Divine has to ask for a denarius? It seems absurd. Yet Jesus always calls upon all of us to be careful of the emphasis which we placed upon money. Over and over again He reminds us that God loves us and will care for us as a good Father. We may not get what we want, but Jesus promises that our Father in Heaven will give us what we need! What better example to us is there than to live His life faithfully trusting that God would provide for all His needs, even when He needs a coin to teach us?

     Then Jesus asks about the coin. "Who's image is this?" You and I are used to coins with the inscription "in God we trust." Roman citizens were used to a picture of Caesar and their own inscription. The coin that Jesus held up for all to see like had Tiberius' image and said something like "Caesar Tiberius, Augustus, Son of the deified Augustus, Chief Priest." Those in Jesus' audience answer Him that it is Caesar's Jesus then tells them to "give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." The word apodate is often translated as give, or render, or pay. But the word is very specific. It means to give back, implying that something has been given in the first place. And such a translation makes sense in light of Jesus' teaching. Those in the crowd have enjoyed the fruits of Caesar's reign. Caesar's army protects the people, Caesar's aqueducts have provided water, and Caesar's roads have made transportation and trade much easier. In short, in some ways, all have benefitted from Caesar's reign. Caesar has done these things, Caesar has paid for these things, Caesar's coin has even made it possible for those in Jesus' audience to purchase goods or transportation or services. So Jesus' answer seems profound. But is is even better than we realize.

     Jesus goes on to state that we should all "give back to God the things that are God's." That same little word, apodate, supplies the verb for the second half of Jesus' teaching. Give back. Jesus has had the crowd looking at an image and inscription of Caesar. He has told them to give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar. Now He instructs them to give back to God the things that are God's. What in their life bears an image of God? In a short quick answer, Jesus reminds each in the audience that they were created in the image and likeness of God! What should they be giving back to God, then? Their very lives! Just as Caesar has stamped metal with his image and has expected it to be returned to him in tribute, God has stamped each of us with His image and expects us to give ourselves back to Him. Perhaps now we know why the Herodians and Pharisees went away amazed.

     Similarly, you and I should be amazed. God has stamped each of us in His image. And, He has told each of us, as he told Moses in this week's OT reading or Evan in the movie, that He loves each one of us. No matter how bad things seem, no matter how poorly we act, no matter how often we fail Him, He loves us still; and He will not fail us! Even when we look stupid like Evan doing his "dance," God is right there loving us. How do we know? He sent His Son to teach us and to reconcile us to Him. He loved each one of us enough to die for us, to pay the penalty for all our sins, and to call us back into right relationship with Him, even though we have rejected Him over and over. And He did all this not because He was required to, but because He wanted to, because He loved each one of us.

     What does He ask in return for such a gift, for such a love? Everything and nothing. God has given us our lives and expects us to give our lives back to Him. From our perspective, He has asked for everything. Yet, what of anything that we have is truly ours? Nothing. Everything belongs to the Creator. Over and over He reminds us that we are His stewards. He gives us treasure, time, talents, and lives which are to be used to serve Him. All these resources that He gives us are supposed to be used to draw the world to Him, to His saving Gospel, to His stretched out arms of love. And so often, we forget that simple truth claim. So often, we forget that we are stewards and act as if we were the lord. The Pharisees and Herodians went away amazed because they were confronted with a reminder of their place in His creation, and they were unwilling to submit to Him. You and I ought to be amazed but drawn to Him. Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians of our story this weekend, you and I can look back on the miracle of the empty tomb and the confirmation of the Ascension and have faith that Jesus is who He said He was. And, better still, He has asked each one of us to bear His image in a dark, lonely, and often hopeless world, reminding all those whom we meet that they, too, were created in His image.

     Every day, you and I are involved in any number of transactions.  Some involve the purchase of goods or services, others involve the exchange of ideas, and still others involve the exchange of love.  The other person in the exchange can be the worker at Wal-Mart, a co-worker, a school friend, a family member, a bill collector, even a stranger; the possibilities are limitless!  The image that we have of ourselves often dictates how we go about those interchanges and exchanges.  Do you go about the world believing that you make your own image, your own self worth, your own value?  Or do you remember that it is in His image that both you and the other were created and so try lovingly to draw him or her into the arms of their true Father, the One who refines all our images and makes us worthy to be loved by Him?


Monday, October 13, 2008

What to wear

     I had to chuckle at God's timing for this week's readings. As a couple dozen members of our House of Deputies and House of Bishops for General Convention 2009 debated the meaning of Jesus' statement in John about being the way, the truth, and the light, we get Jesus' third parable of judgment on the Temple elites in Matthew's Gospel. The parable is a familiar story. The king of a land throws a wedding feast for his son. When the citizens are invited, some ignore the invitation, others act as if they have better things to be doing, and still others decide to kill the kings messengers. The king is enraged. He sends his troops and destroys the murderers and their towns towns. Then he says to his slave to invite everyone to the feast that has been prepared. The wedding hall ends up filled with guests. But one guest sticks out like a sore thumb. One guest has eschewed the wedding robe provided by the host. One guest has decided to trust in his own apparel. The king is once again incensed. He has the guest bound and tossed into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

     I came to the conclusion early in the week that the purported leaders in our church, who were arguing over whether it is more important to live as Christ commanded or simply to identify themselves as His believers, must not have had to preach this week. How else can one explain their fixation on a false dichotomy between ontology (who are we) and praxis (what we do)? Matthew's Gospel spoke right into the midst of their debates, and yet they lacked ears and eyes to hear God's message. Of course, such selfishness is not too surprising. How often do we ignore the clothing with which our Father in heaven has clothed us in exchange for garments of our own choosing and our own creation.

     This message was driven home by my so-called secular voices this past week. One of my guilty pleasures, as many already know, are science fiction movies and books. I broke down last week and purchased Ironman. Without spoiling the details for those who might want to watch the movie later, the hero, (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) of the movie, Tony Stark, spends a great deal of time and energy trying to develop an amazing suit. It must protect him against bullets, explosions, extreme temperatures and any other number threats. Plus, it is armed. And, lest we forget, what good is a superhero is he cannot fly? Stark spends a great deal of his time, energy and fortune after an epiphanic vision of sorts in his attempt to combat evil in the world. Of course, it is a suit of his creation, and, for all the good he can do with it, it still does not function as it should. And, sometimes when damaged, it can be awfully hard to remove.

     I also managed to watch Sex and the City which had an interesting subplot or two. The wedding dress, for Carrie, determined everything. The dress designed the size of the wedding party, the number of people invited, the headpiece, and everything else. And, in the midst of this party being created to match the dress, the viewers are given an important lesson in forgiveness. Miranda's husband has committed a horrible sin against her. Miranda, ever the strong-willed lawyer, knows just what to do. She throws the bum out. Then, later, when she commits a sin against Carrie, she asks Carrie why she will not forgive her. Carrie asks why she should expect to be forgiven when she cannot forgive her soon-to-be ex.

     Two movies, two interesting comments on human nature which coincide with this week's readings about a proper wedding robe. So often, you and I are like Stark. Sometimes, we try to craft our own clothing, trusting that we will be able to clothe ourselves in a righteousness of our own making. We trust that our best will be good enough for God. At other times, however, we fall prey to the idols of the world like Carrie and allow them to dictate what "we wear." Perhaps we adorn ourselves with the trappings of wealth, maybe we feel called to surround ourselves with friends from a particular social clique, we might even feel called by the world to reject the wedding robe offer by our Father in heaven because of its perceived shortcomings (we suffer when we wear it, it is not quite as fancy, etc). Whatever the reason, far too often we reject God's intended robe for us. Neither of these choices ends well in Jesus' story.

     One of the unfortunate comments in the parable is the king's judgment on such people. Those who reject his invitation and those who refuse to wear his robe are cast out and destroyed. Imagine, Jesus tells us another story about judgment. And the judgment is all about the leaders' rejection of God's invitation and about how individuals respond to that invitation to the feast. The fact of the matter is that His feast has been prepared, and He has crafted us all robes of righteousness, if only we will accept His invitation and His offer of salvation through Christ. All other clothing is insufficient in God's eyes. Only the robes washed in the blood of the Lamb will cleanse us, and the object of our desire ought to be that wonderful communion feast with Him for all eternity. As the author of Ecclesiastes will often note, all else is a vanity, a chasing after the wind.

     What is your attitude to your clothing? Do you spend a great deal of time picking out the perfect outfit? Or, are you more likely to throw something together in the dark as you head out to face life? Far too often, those of us in Christian circles forget that we wear His robe over all our clothes. We forget that our identity is intimately tied to Him, and we forget that our actions bring honor or dishonor to our Lord.  How we dress testifies to the world where we place ourselves.  When we wear His robe, we can accomplish miracles in His name.  When we dress in anything else, we often lead or drive others astray.

     The fact is that each of us, as well as everyone we meet, is offered an invitation to God's banquet? God has also made it clear that acceptance of His invitation requires a faith in His beloved Son. But, as Paul would say, faith without works is dead. When we claim to clothe ourselves in Christ's righteousness, we should be about His work. We should be feeding His people, clothing His people, loving His people in as many ways as we can each conceive. Similarly, all these works must be done with an eye to the need to "go and invite everyone whom we find" to His feast. Feeding a hungry person without offering the testimony of Christ only prolongs their dying. Granting a thirsty person a drink while withholding the living water of Christ only prolongs their spiritual dehydration and eventual death.  Clothing the needy while withholding the Gospel only leaves them in the outer darkness, isolated and apart from their heavenly Father. Who we are is defined by what we do, and what we do is defined by who we are. We are not called to an identity without any action, and we are not called to any action without His identity!

     One of the challenges of the parables of Jesus is that we are able to find ourselves in the story. Sometimes, we may not like who we think we are. Are we like Stark or the one who rejected the host's robe in the story today, trusting in our own worth and righteousness? Are we perhaps like those others invited earlier who went about their own business rather than accepting His invitation to the feast? Do we, like the leaders whom Jesus criticizes in this parable, trust that who we are will ensure our ability to get into the feast at a time of our own choosing rather than when He calls? The wonderful Gospel is that, still, He calls us. Despite our terrible wardrobe selections, despite our efforts to wear styles not appropriate to His people, still, He offers to clothe us! All He asks is that we accept His offer. He will take care of all the details and all the accessories. We need only to accept the invitation.  He will prepare a feast for us the likes of which this world will never know, and He will make us each worthy to attend to such a gathering.