Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Making the common holy . . .

     Sitting in West Des Moines on Thursday, a number of clergy from the diocese of Iowa were discussing Ascension Day. Part of the discussion had been provoked by the higher Anglo-Catholics in our midst. Scheduling a FreshStart class on Ascension Day made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for some churches in our diocese to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. Those clergy who travelled more than a couple hours would simply run out of hours in the day. But then a few wondered whether churches would, in general, miss the celebration. Part of that discussion no doubt arose from Kent’s thoughtful sermon that he gave during the Eucharist that morning. What does Ascension Day mean? Why do we celebrate it? How important is it?

     The Feast of the Ascension is, surprisingly to some, one of those very important feast days in the life of the church. In our Anglican tradition, the Feast of the Ascension marks one of six days that “good little Episcopalians/Anglicans are expected to go to church.” It ranks up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. And yet, my phone had not been ringing off the hook because we were not going to be holding a service on Thursday (there were a couple calls and few more face to face complaints). Why? Why do we seem to relegate Acension Day to second status?

     It seems a bit strange that we do not get more worked up about it than we do. After all, every time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist, we are reminded of its importance twice during the service. When we profess the Nicene Creed, we state that “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” And when we celebrate the Eucharist, we state that “we await His coming return (or He will come again). Every time we gather, we remember His death, His Resurrection, and His Ascension (which is tied intimately to His coming again). Why then do we not tell this part of His story more often?

     Part of the reason, of course, is that it is a mystery. It is hard enough explaining that God became man, that He died for our sins, that He rose again from the dead, and that all things have been subjected to Him. Now you want me to explain that He rose to heaven to sit with the Father? -- you have got to be out of your mind. Yet, the good news of the story is so obvious and so simple, and it is so needed to be heard in this day and age. Christ, fully divine and fully human, ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. His new, recreated body now sits eternally with the Father. And by walking the path set before Him in perfect obedience, He has made it possible that you, that I, and that everyone whom we meet might also be lifted to the presence of the Father. In a word, Jesus made the common holy!

     And so you and I can be sent into the world looking for those holy things in the common life. It is part of the reason why a group of bicycle riders can do something weird, like ride a bike around Iowa or Missouri, and yet be used to bring clean water and the Living Water of Christ to places in Africa. It is why we can cook individual items for a group of homeless people in Davenport that, when gathered, reminds them of the "comfort foods" and "Thanksgiving Day" feasts of their youth.  This “making the common holy” aspect of the Ascension is what makes it possible for churches to use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to either expand their community or deepen the relationship in an existent community. This “making the common holy” is why we can sometimes watch a movie such as Terminator: Salvation, Fight Club, Angels & Demons, Hancock, or some other title, and recognize the Gospel playing out before us. This “making the common holy” is what allows a church to look at a NY Times bestseller (The Shack) that is written for those who have lost their faith or never had it to begin with, with an eye towards telling His story better while deepening their relationship and love of one another as they share their own Great Sadness. This “making the common holy” is what allows missionaries to reach the people to whom they have been sent. It is what enables a pastor to come along and use mosquito nets, food, economic survival tips, gas cards, or whatever else we can think of, to remind people of the love of God and the promise of salvation that He offers us. It is what enables us to meet and share God’s love in imaginary places like World of Warcraft. Thought of in that term, that He makes the common holy, why do we not share more about the mystery and glory of His Ascension?



Tuesday, May 19, 2009

He called you and me and . . .


     What does your church look like? -- It is a question that we would all do well to consider from time to time. As 21st Century Episcopalians, we probably have a greater love for institutionalism than is healthy. Maybe, were we to take a test on Facebook, we would end up classifying ourselves as “abnormally institutional.”

     Our readings this week, however, spoke to the fact that we are called to remember that He chose and that He called us. We did not earn our way to the feast, we did not merit some special invitation, and we certainly do not have all our acts (either collectively or individually) together at this point. We are simply called together in common love of Him and in common mission to the world around us as a thankful response to the grace and forgiveness that He offers the whole world.

     The above picture is a fascinating reproduction of that understanding. It is a re-creation of the Last Supper that ought to perhaps tweak us and make us reflect upon ourselves. Were they gangsters? Thugs? Drug dealers? Does it matter?

     Jesus came to save all that would accept His offer. The wash basin reminds us that He came to wash them just as He came to wash us. And so, as we contemplate and consider the “strangeness” and “differentness” of those whom He has called in this picture, let us not lose sight of those He has called in our midst, including ourselves.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grafted in or cut off?

Sometimes I wonder at God's sense of humor. Our reading from Acts this week reminds us not only of His power to redeem but of His humor. To see both, we need a bit of background information. Eunuchs in the Ancient near East were an interesting class. Sometimes, free men or slaves were castrated for political purposes; sometimes they were castrated for religious reasons. Since the men had been castrated, the eunuchs were viewed as trustworthy and unbeset by a lot of the passions that drove "intact" men. Kings obviously did not have to worry about Eunuchs sleeping with their wives and concubines. Kings also thought they did not have to worry about the eunuchs stealing or playing politics, as the source of ambition (i.e. providing for the well-being of their family) had been removed.

Unlike much of the rest of the ANE, however, Israel did not value the role of Eunuchs in society. When conquering other nations, and in contrast to many nations in the ANE, Israel was not allowed to castrate any captured slaves. Further, eunuchs were actually excluded from worship! Leviticus 21:20 and 22:24 excluded eunuchs from serving as priests or Levites. And Deuteronomy 23:1 went a step further by stating that anyone with any genital damage was excluded from worship. Why the harsh judgment and exclusion? Some commentators argue that castration marred God's image of man, and so eunuchs could not be allowed to participate in the worship of Him. Others argue that eunuchs may have been outwardly visible reminders of the voluntary religious acts practiced by the Canaanite peoples which were to be rejected utterly by Israel. Others note that possession of the Land was an outward and visible sign of the covenant with God. If one could not have children, one's inheritance would be lost. Whatever the reason, eunuchs were excluded from the assembly of the people and the worship of God.

Yet, as with so much of His story of redemption, the plight of the faithful eunuch is not lost upon God. In Isaiah 56, God takes up the great sadness of the eunuch who loves God. Isaiah reminds us that a eunuch can love and worship the Lord; yet that faithfulness and love seems unrequited by God. So, in verses 4-5 of Isaiah 56, God promises the eunuchs who keep His sabbath and His torah a name and memorial far greater than any sons or daughters. Such a promise must have seemed impossible to both the eunuchs and faithful Israelite who read the passage. How can God give a eunuch a memorial greater than sons or daughters?

Fast forward to our passage in Acts 8 this week. You and I might think we have any number of ideas for reading during a cross country trip than Isaiah, but can you imagine any better book were we God-fearing eunuchs? Isaiah would have been the promise of hope for all faithful eunuchs. And so, Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah on his way back from Jerusalem. This eunuch is returning from a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage which will have reminded him of the fact that he is seemingly excluded from God's promises. And, there, along the side of the road, the faithful eunuch meets one of God's apostles and learns of redemption through the saving work of Jesus!

Philip strikes up a conversation by asking the eunuch if he understands what he has read. The eunuch says that he has not. And so Philip tells the story of Jesus of Nazarus and how He was the One of whom Isaiah wrote. Quickly, the Ethiopian eunuch grasps the story. His hope for a name and for a memorial greater than sons and daughters is in Jesus, the Messiah of God!
As God would have have it, a pool of water is nearby as they are traveling. The eunuch asks what prevents him from being baptized? Philip says nothing, and the last of Jesus' commands to go and proclaim the Gospel in Judea, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The first person to hear and be converted by the Gospel of Christ from the ends of the earth is an Ethiopian eunuch! And we so often like to think of God without a sense of humor.

There are any number of lessons applicable to our modern life in this story. Chief among them would be God's caution to us about appearances. So often, we think we know what other Christians ought to look like. For whatever reason, we forget that in the eyes of God, everyone looks like someone who does not belong until they die to sin and are reborn in Christ. We continue to focus on the outward appearance and try to discern whether the stranger or other among us truly belongs. Yet God's offer is really quite simple. Believe in His Son, accept His offer of salvation, and He will give you a memorial and name greater than any sons or daughters. We are, if we truly accept His offer, adopted into His family or, to use Jesus' imagery from this weekend, grafted into His vine. And so we should not be surprised, as members of His holy family, that our witness sometimes draws others to Him and His offer of saving grace. And, instead of turning a cold shoulder to them, we should offer the strangers among us a hand, a welcome, warm eye contact, and the love which He first offered us.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Which green pastures are good?

     One of the difficulties of being a shepherd is the fact that the animals are not particularly hardy. For example, in most mammals, when the mother gives birth, her immune system is usually strengthened and antibodies are shared in her milk with her young, thereby increasing the likelihood of the offspring’s survival. Sheep are not that strong. In fact, the ewes and lambs need to be separated early so that contagions do not spread quickly. Another survival instinct which many animals share revolves around their food. Many animals can simply “tell” whether the food is really nourishing; others, who may lack that ability, are able to shrug off poisons before they build up through regurgitation (we humans do this with some poisons, and we take advantage of the fact that rodents cannot when we poison them). Sheep, for whatever reason, seem to lack some of these survival instincts. As a consequence, shepherds must always be on guard against all kinds of diseases, bugs, and other pitfalls which beset sheep.

     One of the most insidious problems facing shepherds, though, is a worm which attacks the digestive tract of the sheep. The reason that the worm is insidious is that the shepherd does not know there is an epidemic in his or her herd until a sizeable portion of the flock turns up dead one morning. What’s worse, the worm cannot be seen in the field – the grass does not look infected. Place yourself in the position of a shepherd for a second. You are always looking for verdant pastures. Perhaps, you even have worked out an accommodation with cattle farmers. Cows do not eat the closer to the ground bits of grass, and sheep actually prefer that part rather than the tall part. You might rightly think that since the cows had no problems in a particular pasture, your sheep will be just fine there, too. And, lest we forget, you have helped the ewes birth a number of your sheep. Maybe in the beginning, you lacked that emotional attachment (they were just bought sheep at that point), but after a couple of seasons of midwiving, the flock has become truly yours. And, one morning, as you cross the hill to check on the sheep, you see up to a third of them dead in the lush field. As you rush to herd the live ones away and get them to a safe area where you can summon a veterinarian and get them their meds, you start going over your work in your head. How can I have let this happen? The field looked lush. The cattle that ate here showed no ill effects? Two months ago, nothing happened when I pastured them here. Why now? Over and over you replay your decision-making process in your head. And now, because of you, a number of the flock is dead. Your livelihood, as a shepherd, is threatened.

     Many of us find ourselves in the role of shepherd in everyday life. Those of us who are parents soon discover that parenting is much like shepherding. Children can be willful and stubborn. They often rail against parents’ seeming attempts to eliminate all fun, even though the parents are trying so hard to preserve their life. Those of us who manage people at work can find ourselves like shepherds. Yes, managers can threaten some with job loss, but do we really want it to get to that point? Few enjoy firing another person, unless the one being fired is a real jerk or simply terrible for morale. Let’s face it, as managers, our jobs are sometimes to teach the subordinates, and when we fire them we are admitting our own failures. Those among us who teach face many of the same challenges as parents. And even corporately, we face similar challenges. Our recent financial expo attempted to feed those most in need among us, and look what happened. Very few came to take advantage of the offering. Social workers perhaps understand this imagery as well as they deal with the weak, the forgotten, and the marginalized. Our doctors may view us in similar light. "Eat less; exercise more."  But we never listen.  Yes, many of us have ministries akin to shepherding in our lives.

     Psalm 23 ought to provide us with amazing comfort. Our Lord is The Good Shepherd. Where we as shepherds sometimes make mistakes, He provides and does so abundantly! As the Creator of everything, He knows precisely what is required. And He knows those things which can be hazardous to us. We might not see the brambles, the ravines, or the wolves until it is too late. Better still, God can and does provide all that we need in the presence of our (His) enemies. He is so in control, so powerful, and so loving of us, that He shepherds us through our enemies. True, many enemies can be imaginary or worse, of our own making, but there are enemies of God who like nothing better than to see His people fall so that the world questions His love and His commitment to His people. Still, the Good Shepherd is faithful. He provides for His sheep, and He calls them by name. He is among us, and He is always shepherding us through life.

     Brothers and sisters, He has called you and me and each person we know and meet into that kind of relationship. He is the Good Shepherd. And wondrously, mysteriously, He has asked each of us to become His nation of shepherds in the world. But, we must always be reminded that He is not just the Good Shepherd, but the source of life. When we trust in ourselves and our efforts alone, so often our mistakes can leave us like that shepherd who arises one morning to find that he or she has failed his sheep. But when we trust in Him, in His saving Word, in His streams of life, then we can lead others confident that He will beat down the brambles and feed us amidst our enemies.