Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The promise and power of Pentecost . . .

     In the liturgical seasons of the Church, we have made it to that one day when we begin to recognize our inheritance as first born sons and daughters of God the Father and to live our lives as if we believe we are who He says we are.  This day in the church we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower and enlighten us to discern and to accomplish those things which God has given us to do.  Truthfully, here at St. Alban’s, I have a hard time with a sermon for this day.  Non-Christians and lapsed Christians and doubters and seekers will show up on Easter and Christmas, but it is more likely those active in the church and aware of what He has done who come this day.  In a sense, it is a day when I could rightfully read the Gospel and give us some silence to ponder the enormity of what has been given to each of us.  But, I think sometimes, in the parochialism of our lives, we sometimes miss just how busy the Holy Spirit is in the world around us.  We might recognize a healing miracle, but do we always notice the coming of the Holy Spirit into our midst in great power and the wonderful works that are accomplished to the honor and glory of God?

     I must say, part of the reason I have been so busy these last few weeks has been a direct result of that Spirit at work in and through many of you.  But I wonder if we spend enough time reflecting upon both the enormity of the Spirit’s work and the Spirit’s attention to even the small things in our lives or even our very selves?  By that, you and I and the rest of the world are always looking for the obvious miracles in our lives as signs that we are doing those things He has called us to do and as signs that we have earned His favor.  In truth, you and I should always remember that the real proof of His love to us and the proof of His ability to keep His promises to each one of us was His work on the cross and His Resurrection.  But, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we like the flashy miracles.  Even in that, though, God has been faithful.  Three people given to our prayer chain have either been cured of or presumed to have been misdiagnosed as having cancer in the last month.  We could spend a few hours here celebrating those healings and a couple others, and this would be a memorable day in many of our lives.  But I think we need to look both bigger and deeper.

     I say bigger because of the ministries to which we have been called as a group.  It is hard not to think of Human Trafficking as an obvious example of that bigger working of the Holy Spirit.  To the extent that a little $100k budget church dared to start a fight with a $300B industry, it is obvious that the Spirit is every bit as powerful today as it was that day so long ago recorded in Acts.  But think bigger for a second.  Raise your hand if you ever thought, nearly five years ago, that Roman Catholics, non-denoms, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and people outside the faith would be united in this particular fight.  You might have hoped in your wildest dreams once you recognized the reality of modern slavery that such would come to pass (after all, we did experience that with Angel Food in the fight against hunger), but can you honestly say you saw this as an outcome in the beginning?  How about as little as two years ago?  And now we Christians, who have significant and serious disagreements among ourselves, to the dishonor and slander of our Bridegroom, find ourselves united in our insistence that the cross and the empty tomb must be shared with those recovered victims in our midst, that they might find true healing and true hope, as opposed to the coping the secular world wants to teach.  We are divided in so many ways, yet locally we seem to speak about this issue in one voice.  Is that not the obvious working of the Spirit in all our lives?

     I must say, I have also had the privilege of watching a parish have this kind of leading and discernment from the outside as they go through a particular struggle.  The struggle, I think, is part of the natural maturation process of a church.  By that, I mean that the struggles are not unexpected.  Though it may be natural and may be expected does not obviate the fact that the process is full of all kinds of pitfalls.  As they began to consider whether their plant should move into a permanent space, God has been working powerfully in their midst.  Taking on a mortgage or rent payment is a huge step in the life of a church.  What if the church overreaches?  What if the neighbors are bad?  What if the fact that the church has permanent location actually turns off those who like the nomadic existence?

     Typically, as you all would expect from Fr. Bryan’s leadership, the Vestry was encouraged to fast and to pray about the opportunity that presented itself.  Was this of God?  Was it not?  As is so often the case, the answer became visible to more and more people, both on the Vestry and in the parish.  When they had first entertained the space, the potential landlord was going to be charging rent.  Within the last few weeks, however, he changed his mind.  Test out the space.  See if it meets your needs.  See if you can settle there permanently.  From his perspective, a permanent resident tenant might cut down on vandalism.  His decision was made purely on economic terms, but look at the impact on the church:  one cause for concern eliminated.

      When they began to meet for the final decision making meeting, and I am skipping tons here, one of their members was compelled to answer a question.  I say compelled because this member considers herself uneducated and uniquely unqualified to lead other Christians or to speak on such matters with any authority.  And I will tell you that, on the basis of secular judgments about such things, she is absolutely right.  Yet here she was, with all her baggage, speaking into the process and naming those things that needed to be named and binding and casting out those things which were evil and loosing those things which were of God.  Of all those in her parish to say the things she said, she was the least likely.  To put it in terms that you or I can understand, think of how unlikely it would be for Jane or Linda to ask me to preach during church.  My guess is, knowing Jane and Linda, the devil will be bundled in a snowsuit before that day comes voluntarily.  Yet this parish found just such an individual leading their discussions and discernment.  To some, her very willingness to speak and her ability to articulate were the final piece of discernment that they needed.  And so they acted.  Were there fears real?  You bet.  Could there be a failure?  Perhaps.  But, collectively, the church had been given its obvious sign in response to their prayer and fasting.  God had answered powerfully, and they could only choose to be obedient to their discernment.

     Bigger movements of the Holy Spirit seem to get all the attention, but I was reminded of the personal attention given by God’s Spirit this week.  While these big events were going on, lives were being lived and lives were being lost.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in the ICU at Genesis East.  As most of you know, I have spent a lot of time there over the past three weeks.  As I arrived during the middle of last week, Jan was sleeping.  Occupational therapy had worn Jan out, so she was sleeping.  The came the cries of ultimate suffering.  Those of you who have ever heard people wail and sob when a loved one is dying and there is no hope know what I heard.  I must confess, I did not want to deal with it.  The nurses came and needed me to leave as they worked on Jan, so I retreated to a section of one of the three ICU waiting rooms to wait for the nurses to finish rather than walk over to the next room over.  Wouldn’t you know it, the family came into my section in my waiting room sobbing.  Now, I have the discernment skills of a slug, but even I am not that blind.  I listened to the crying and anger and hopelessness until the opportunity presented itself.  The family was being asked to take the lady of life support.  Everything but her heart had ceased working.  Doctors told the family there was no hope.  And the family was unable to let the lady go.

     As I was sitting in the room listening to the anguish, I was struck at the difference between the Chapman clan and this family.  Jan and her family, at various times during this ordeal, had been given difficult news and not great prognoses during the course of her treatment.  The difference between the two families was pronounced.  Both families were worried; both were scared.  But one family believed that Christ had died and had risen.  One family had that peace that passes all understanding.  How they faced the death of a loved one was entirely different.  One had hope despite the fear and possible mourning; the other had no hope.  I will say, by way of my obvious duties, I spoke into that hopeless situation.  As it turns out, the lady dying was a woman of faith.  Her children and grandchildren and others did not share her faith in our Lord, but she was, by their accounts, a Christian woman “for all the good it did her now.”  I was able to remind them that it was for this moment in her life that He died.  It was to give them and her hope at this moment that God raised Him from the dead.  What if it is a joke?  What if Jesus is dead?  Then, to be sure, she is to be pitied for living her life as if it were true.  But have you all asked the question of yourself, “What if it is true?  What if He is alive today and claims her as His own?”  Even in the midst of painful news and decisions, the Holy Spirit is still comforting.  Even in the midst of fighting slavery through us and helping churches discern God’s will, the Spirit is reaching into families. 

     The last story that I choose to share this week is of one that you know well, but do not know.  Those of us who read the papers inBettendorf might be aware that a particular individual was returned to our community.  His crime is of such a nature that no one will ever forget.  He will be, if he has not already, moving out of state to avoid the infamy.  Those of you with a couple year’s memory might remember our good friend and fellow laborer “Larry from Houston.”  It turns out that Larry was forced to deal with this individual.  Without going into too much detail, this was the last kind of person that Larry with whom Larry would want (or most of us) to have dealings.  But, as Larry said, that is how were are all seen by God before we plead the cross and Resurrection of Christ.

     As Larry was dealing with him, the young man opened up.  Larry, it seems, had been the first person to treat him with any respect since he returned to the community.  The young man told Larry that he sees the disappointment in his mother’s and father’s eyes every time he talks to them, and rightfully so.  Worse, he hears the whispers and catcalls of total strangers.  As they were driving down Locust, the young man asked Larry for an accounting of his behavior.  Larry pulled over into the Hy—Vee parking lot and answered all his questions.  At the end of their conversation, the young man asked the question of the Ethiopian Eunuch:  “What must be done for me to get that peace?”  Larry told him that God only asked that we say the sinner’s prayer and repent of all our sins. “Would you teach me the prayer?”  Larry showed up in my office after having dropped off the young man, newly forgiven, begging forgiveness.  When he told me the whole tale, I asked “for what?”  I forgot the prayer and may have given him the wrong words.  “Did he repent?”  I think so.  “Then no guilt attaches.  In fact, great joy attaches.”  How do you figure?  “Because one who was lost found his way home thanks to your testimony.”  But my pastor is going to kill me?  “Why?”  Because I forgot the words of the prayer?  “I doubt it, but if he does, I think heaven will still be throwing the confetti when you get there if he does.”  While doing the “grand” and “big” things in life, the Holy Spirit is still speaking into the lives of individuals, and redeeming those who were lost.

     This day, brothers and sisters, we remind ourselves that God has kept a promise to send us power and gifts, both of which are to be used to His honor and glory.  That same Spirit, about which we read in Acts and John this morning, brothers and sisters, is every bit as active today as it was then.  The question is whether we have eyes to see and ears to hear the Holy Spirit at work not just in the world around us, but in our own lives and our own hearts.  The feast of Pentecost, brothers and sisters, is one that ought to have the same importance in our lives as Christmas and Easter.  As those days signify God’s desire to reach out to us and bridge the chasm that exists between us and Him, Pentecost reminds us that He has already begun to keep His promises to us.  It is a day which signifies that you and I and all whom have accepted His call on their hearts have started that process by which He turns us each into priests in His eternal kingdom.  It is that day which reminds us that we are witnesses of the healing that He brings to the world around us and to individual lives like our own, and given a commission and power to take that tale of hope into the world, that He might be glorified, and His kingdom enlarged through the faithful obedience of men and women like ourselves. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

There's more to the Golden Rule . . .

     A number of people during the week wanted to know what I thought about the President's comments regarding the recent vote in North Carolina to deny GLBTQI individuals the right to marry whomever they choose.  Judging by some conversations afterwards, there were even a few that hoped I would take the time to address the vote, the President's words, and my position during church.  Given that we were celebrating Mother's Day and Rogation and the Healing Ministry, and that I had also been warned many times that people had made plans for brunch with mothers, it made little sense in my mind to use worship time to discuss the subject.  Further, I am really not interested in singling out particular groups during church.  We gather together to worship and give thanks to God for the redeeming working He has done in all our lives.  But, given the discussions, it is clear that it needs to be addressed.
     I cannot claim to have been surprised by the President's announcement.  Similarly, I cannot claim to have been surprised by Governor Romney’s announcement that followed the Preseident’s.  Like all politicians, the candidates for President are motivated to make statements or to withhold them, in order to secure enough votes (or funds) for election.  I have always assumed, given his past work, that the President supported the GLBTQI right to marry.  I always presumed he found it politically inexpedient to state his position clearly, as his position would have repercussions which he and his advisors needed to study.  Apparently, he and they felt that the vote in North Carolina gave him an opportunity to support part of his liberal base . . . sort of.  Some in our GLBTI community have described his support as lukewarm.  He is personally in favor but believes that states should decide.  To them, his statement does not go far enough.  Along those lines, given the President’s statement, Gov. Romney and his advisors felt that the President’s announcement gave them an opportunity to state his “position” and delineate for voters another difference between the two candidates.  The end result is yet another division in American politics.  Some are already lamenting the upcoming presidential campaign which will no doubt cause incredibly hard feelings on both sides of the argument as politicians and their PACs use the stories of the GLBTQI community to raise money and garner votes.  As residents of a so-called "battleground state," we will no doubt be subjected to more vitriol than most of the other 40 states surrounding this and other issues before us.  I, and others in this community, wonder what that will do for the relatively civil debate that characterizes our discussions on this topic in Iowa.
     What I found particularly disturbing about the President's statement was his attempt to couch his decision in Christian terms.  The President rightly reminded everyone that Christ died on the cross to atone for the sins of all.  He then took the step of saying that Jesus also proclaimed the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have done unto you, and it was that teaching which led him and his personal opinion "to change" or "to evolve."  The Golden Rule is a nice teaching, but it is not the entire teaching of our Lord.  The passage which the President cited, Matthew 7:12, actually reads Do unto others as you would have done unto you for this sums up the law and the prophets (emphasis mine).  Separating the do unto others passage from the rest of the sentence removes the meaning which Christ intended.  It is much like separating the instructions to the husband and wife in Ephesians 5 (vv 22 and 25). What Jesus meant in the passage cited by the President and what John describes in his letter this week goes far beyond a "be nice" Golden Rule espoused by our President.  What Jesus commanded and John reminds us is that true love seeks the Godly welfare of the other.  In both their cases, Jesus and John are reminding us that our primary focus is to honor and glorify God.  As human beings, our ability to know how best to honor God is clouded by any number of faults in ourselves.  We see this played out daily in adults and children who make any number of choices which actually harm them rather than benefit them.  Put another way, we could not trust our desires and thoughts, so God gave us the torah as a way of instructing His people what a holy, righteous, glorifying life would look like.  Of course, like us, the people of Israel failed miserably to keep His instruction in their daily lives.
     If you love me, you will keep my commandments should resonate in the lives all Christians.  Yet, how many of us put anything else before Him.  How do we know whether we are doing "right" by God, acting in ways which honor and glorify Him?  By comparing our behavior and our thoughts to His instruction, instruction that was given to a redeemed people at Mt. Sinai and echoed in the teaching by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the passage from which the President’s citation comes.  As Christians, we are impelled by love to exhort, encourage, support, and do anything possible to help our fellow brothers and sisters live a life that bears much fruit to the glory of God.  Yes, love also compels us to share the Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected with those not yet a part of His people, but we also have a responsibility to disciple one another in His teaching, to educate ourselves about Him, and to worship Him for all that He has done for us.  That is a far greater responsibility than the Golden Rule cited by the President in his rationale, and that responsibility is what was taught by Christ.  The President may want to couch his evolution in Christian terms, but his choice of this passage simply highlighted his unfamiliarity with the text.
     I will grant, however, that what the President was speaking of was in civil terms.  He believes that the Constitution gives adults the right to marry whomever they want, that marriage between a man and a woman deserves no special recognition by the state.    Yes, he tried to use Christian language, but his intended audience was more secular, an audience which intentionally neglects to remember the rest of the Golden Rule.  I think that ultimately, in the civil arena, the President's position will win in the marketplace of ideas.  People accept that whom they marry is part of the "pursuit of happiness" and that the state needs to quit interfering in that pursuit.  As one who has had to watch partners being separated by family members as one was dying of AIDS and as one who has had to watch two survivors have the life that they built with another stolen out from under them during the disease and death of their partner, I can certainly understand the GLBTQI demand that they be given particular rights and protections.  Some of those who come in to discuss the theology of whether the Church ought to marry them claim that there are as many as 1400 rights granted to married couples that they are denied.  If domestic partnership laws cannot be created to confer the same rights (though, for the life of me I can think of no real reason why they cannot be so crafted), then I expect that at some date in the future, those 30 states that have passed amendments like North Carolina's will find them overturned by the courts.
     As with anything, the law of unintended consequences of these actions will be interesting to watch.  Polygamists and Polyamorists are beginning to organize much as did the GLBTQI lobby, and sets from each group have shown up at church to ask for blessings (that's how I learned that polygamists and polyamorists are different from one another).  Those that participate in shows such as "Sister Wives" claim that part of the purpose of their participation is to show that they are as normal as everyone else.  And, having experienced this in my tenure at St. Alban's, those that want to have sexual relations with close family members are wanting to have incest laws changed as well (one of the two couples that showed up at church asking for our blessing pointed out that modern birth control methods makes the state's concern about genetic mutations obsolete).  If the state admits it has no right to interfere in the personal happiness of consenting adults, how will those and other behaviors be limited?  Hopefully, as this debate continues, serious discussions about the role of the state in marriage will be discussed rather than dismissed, and hopefully neither side will resort to name-calling.  I am certain that the church’s understanding and role will continue to be discussed not only in our church but in many other denominations as well.
     Given my outlook, am I particularly pessimistic?  I do not believe so.  I do try to live in the world even though I am no longer of it, as Christ has already redeemed my life. In that sense, I like to think I am a realist.  One of the benefits of reading the Bible is the reminder that there is, as the author of Ecclesiastes claims, nothing new under the sun.  The Bible is full of nations who reject God, of God’s chosen people who reject His instruction, and of His people constantly fighting or arguing about His instruction.  In that sense, the times in which we live are not unique and not without hope.  One of the testimonies of Scripture is that, no matter how bad, how disjointed, how utterly hopeless things may seem, God is always able to work His will.  We may fight Him, we may pursue anything but Him, but, in the end, ultimately He wins.  So, in all things, I try to be particularly optimistic, knowing the promises He have made to all those who have chosen to follow Him.
     Of course, whatever the state decides about anything, the Church must be guided by her Bridegroom.  We must continue to search God's teaching for His instruction with respect to the question of marriage.  The Episcopal Church has been, in many ways, far ahead of society in these discussions.  In 2003 TEC voted to consent to the election of a sexually active gay man as bishop, in 2009 to a sexually active lesbian woman as a bishop, and in 2009 to collect and recommend blessing ceremonies for those in the GLBTQI community who were wanting to commit themselves to one another within a faith community that supports their commitment.  Although I serve in the church and am guided by my bishop, one of my chief responsibilities and obligations in being a good pastor to those entrusted to my care is to study the Scriptures.  While many of my colleagues believe that the Bible is silent on the question of GLBTQI commitments, I do not find it so.  I accept Scripture to have been inspired by God, who is omniscient.  I believe that for any church to bless such unions departs from the instruction of God.  Our chief job as pastors, and as I said about mothers yesterday and will say about fathers a few weeks into the future, is to help our brothers and sisters to glorify God.  We do that through worship, through the witnessing of His Gospel in our lives, and through, when called upon, in our sharing of His Gospel with others.    Those who claim to be Christian and pontificate about the GLBTQI community and its members’ faults, I believe, are doing anything but honoring God in the words and in their treatment of those who describe themselves in those terms around us.  As Christ would likely tell us, they are worrying about the motes in others when they should be worried more about their own logs.  Do I still think that they are sinners?  Yes.  But in that respect they are no different than anyone else, myself included, and that is why I tend not to make big statements singling out a group (though I recall more than one complaint from this community that I needed to ease up on the words of Christ regarding divorce and remarriage).  Sin is anything that seeks anything other than God's will, and all who have walked the earth but Christ fall short on that account.
      So what is Christian marriage, if you not too concerned about the state's definition?  I believe that the entirety of Scripture teaches that marriage is a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman.  Are there some shocking behaviors in the Bible?  To be sure.  The Bible, among other things, is a collection of real stories about real people.  Contained within its chapters are rapists, adulterers, murderers, those who engaged in incest, men who slept with their stepmothers, and polygamists.  Some of those whose sins are described in the Bible even make the family tree of our Lord (admit it, your Sunday School teachers must have cut out the more juicy bits and now you wish you had read more on your own!)!  Though all those are in there, God makes it clear that marriage is the committed relationship between one man and one woman which He created in the beginning.  It is that relationship which He designed to reflect, however dimly, the mystery we Christians call the Trinity.  
     So what's the upshot of all this? Life will go on, no matter what any President says about anything.  For us as Christians, I think society's floundering has taught us just how poorly we have done in terms of discipling and studying God's word.  I do think that when we focus our energies and efforts upon identifying ourselves as opposed to something, we sell ourselves and God's ability to accomplish amazing things in our midst short.  I feel I should always strive to keep my focus on the things that God wants, rather than pointing out all our and others’ shortcomings.  My discussions this week of the purpose and life of motherhood was not to make mothers feel bad, but rather to give them what I thought God wants from them and to remind them that He has already paid the price to redeem whatever failures of which they might need to repent.  Put in Easter language, a pastor who leads the people entrusted to their need of the cross but does not lead them to the hope of the empty tomb is more of a hired hand than a true pastor.
     Along those lines, I give the same advice about marriage.  Quite frankly, in the midst of our community here at St. Alban’s, I do not think that the effort of the GLBTI community to secure a sanctioned relationship is a danger to the relationship of those that are married and attend St. Alban's.  From my perspective, there are far greater dangers to the marriages of those who attend here or seek counseling here.  God calls women to love their husbands and husbands to love their wives in self-sacrificing ways rather than selfish.  In our relationships, that selfishness can be expressed in any number of ways.  The marital fights into which I have been drawn these almost six years were all more about selfishness than about glorifying God.  All of them.  Yes, sexual promiscuity is a huge danger to our Christian marriages, but what other people are doing in their bedrooms is less likely to impact our marriages than our own unwillingness to turn off the computer porn or eliminate our girlie posters and magazines (and how many of us at St. Alban’s indulge in this knowing that the girls pictured are often as enslaved as those whom we try to reach in some of our ministries at St. Alban’s?) or our Harlequin novels, our all too willingness to look the other way when youth "live together" or "just have sex" without being married, and when we commit sexual or emotional adultery through the social media when we are unhappy or unsatisfied with our spouses.    Those behaviors, I believe, will do far more to undermine the marriages of those in our church than the behaviors of other consenting adults.
     I do recognize that we are not of a unanimous mind on this subject at St. Alban’s.  Such is not surprising to me, given what is happening around us in the Episcopal Church and in the world.  Our teaching about marriage is, in many respects, inconsistent.  The real challenge for us at the local level, just as at the wider levels of the church, will continue to be how we live out those differences.  Early in this process, those arguing in favor of such blessings asked us on the opposite side for “mutual deference,” promising that if we treated them with respect, they would do the same to us.  I have found that request reasonable, beneficial, and edifying, particularly as I have had to deal with those affected by these issues in a number pastoral conversations and situations.  I hope, to the extent that so many of those in the community around us have come back to continue our discussions, that I have shown them the respect and dignity which I believe they deserve as a created child of God.  Although I cannot bless their relationships, I do believe that some of their critiques of the leadership on the “traditional” side of this argument and of the church’s failure to speak into society’s discussion about sex and marriage and divorce with its prophetic, God-given voice has in large part, contributed to this fight in the church and now, presumably, in our presidential politics.  Would we have reached such a level of respect were either of us pontificating in posts such as these or from the pulpit or from some other public horn?  I seriously doubt it.  Neither would invective name calling have helped.  But while such a goal of mutual deference seems lofty and good, I also recognize it will fail in the end.  Both sides, in the current discussion of these blessings in the church, claim that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to reach their respective conclusions.  One side, however well-meaning, is blaspheming the Holy Spirit in its arguments and actions.  Ultimately, what God truly desires for His church will win out, and the other will whither, trimmed from His vine.
     As I exhaled and began the effort to compose an answer to all the questions surrounding the excitement and anxiety of the last week, I did so with a heavy heart.  I know the extra work it will cause in the future.  Some will feel ashamed that they allowed themselves to become disquieted by the “noise” of the outside world.  Some will be angry that, in light of our President’s statement, I have still not come around in my way of thinking.  Some will think that I went too far in stating my position, and others will state that I did not go far enough.  I suppose, in all fairness, depending on your perspective, you may be right.  In crafting a bit of an answer, however, I also needed to remember and to remind us all that those who are most affected by the President’s statement may also be sinners redeemed by grace.  While I am always excited to share God’s redeeming work in the lives of those in our church and surrounding us, I am usually loathe to share the personal struggles, whatever they are, of the individual’s whose lives intersect the ministry given me by God.  We live in an oversexed culture where our teenage girls accept that oral sex is owed to a boy who deigns to buy her a McDonald’s cheeseburger on a cheap date, where sex is used to sell nearly everything imaginable, and where (mostly) men feel it is normal to pay a thirteen year-old to have sex with them because “she loves her work” or the money.  It is no small wonder that some of our significant struggles as individuals and as a church revolve around the issues of sex.
     Will there be any changes at St. Alban’s as a result of our President’s statement?  I do not expect so.  For the most part, I do not think that we have a problem treating individuals with respect and, ultimately, with a love that supports them in their effort to bear much fruit to His glory.  I will continue to preach and teach that marriage, as revealed by God, is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman.  I will continue to teach and preach that adultery, pornography and other such evils are far more of a danger to the relationships of those here.  No doubt some will continue to discuss the issue or question with me in private or in small groups.  There is certainly nothing to be lost in such discussions and everything, including brothers and sisters in Christ, to be gained (that is a later Matthew reference).  One of the strengths, I believe, of our particular faith tradition is that we are encouraged to read, learn, and inwardly digest God’s instruction.  Sometimes, this means we ask hard questions and, for a time, arrive at different solutions or practices.  Is it neat and orderly as we desire?  No.  Is it a bit messy?  For certain.  We are all sinners redeemed by grace, but we are not yet entirely the new creation.  But just as certain is God ability to redeem even theological differences such as these.  The same God who redeemed the death of our Lord will redeem even these disputes.  
     Christ’s Peace,

Monday, May 7, 2012

How will they understand unless we explain . . .

     How can I understand unless someone explains it to me? -- You and I should hear those words reverberating in our minds as we go through our daily life and work.  Unless we explain it, how will people ever understand it.  No doubt the words make some of us here uncomfortable.  You want me to talk to my friends about my faith?  You expect me to share my beliefs with my co-workers?  But words are not always our best sermons.  As we so often remind ourselves, how you and I react to the blessings and vicissitudes of life can sometimes be the best sermons that we ever give.  But how do we live sermons effectively?

     Flash back to the Gospel lesson for
today.  I am the vine and you are the branches.  One of the interesting benefits of my ministry here over the past nearly six years is the knowledge that I have gained regarding wine-making.  As most of you know, we often go to Fr. Mel's in Iowa City to make wine twice a year.  Usually, we bottle between 110 and 165 gallons of wine each time.  Mel has been doing this for almost 35 years, so he can do some fancy blendings of different flavors to make some really good wines.  What is more amazing to me than Mel's knowledge of all things wine is the simple variety available.  I commented on it one day while bottling and got a lecture from one of our fellow helpers about how that variety is produced here in the United States.  Grapes are like any other plants.  Some varieties grow better in particular places than others.  Like Vidalia onions, which do not taste like Vidalia onions when grown far outside that area of Georgia for which they are named, and hatch peppers, which share a similar geographical limitation to northern Mexico and southwestern parts of the United States, certain grapes will not grow well in various locations.  At least until the process of grafting.

     Sometime during the 1800's vintners discovered that branches could be placed in existing vines and cultivated to bear fruit.  Better still, commercialism being one of those guiding forces, vintners discovered that the branches of one type of grape could be grafted into the vine of an entirely different vine.  Over time, a vintner could switch his vineyard from producing chardonnay to producing Muscat to producing pinot grigio, all from the same vine!  The reasons for doing this are varied.  Some root systems are tougher than others.  Others handle certain pests better.  I suppose weather even plays a role.  If one variety of wine is subject to fungus or disease, grafting it onto another vine may provide it with the protection necessary to grow and produce fruit.  It is not too surprising, when we consider what vintners have discovered the past few centuries, that Jesus would describe discipleship in such terms.

     In our Gospel passage today, Jesus describes Himself as the Vine and you and me as the branches.  As a result of our faith in His saving work, you and I are planted in His cuts (literally and figuratively).  Like the grafted branch in wine-making, you and I draw our nutrients, our water, our very life from Him, at least that is our Father’s plan.  When life’s blessings happen, you and I are called to give thanks.  When life give us pain and suffering, we are to patiently bear it, knowing that God will redeem whatever is going on in our lives, even if it leads to our death.  Better still, while we receive our nurturing from the Vine, you and I have a job to do.  It is our job, planted in His life giving vine, to bear fruit which glorifies the owner of the vineyard, the Father.  At times, our Father will, like a good vintner, prune us, that we might produce even more fruit.  We might like a particular ministry, but God may well choose to give us a new direction, that He might be more glorified through our lives.  And you and I are called to trust that He will “prune” us, “tie” us off, and let us grow and thrive, all to His glory.  It sounds like an amazing process, but how does it play out in life?  After all, none of us are placed along the side of the road encountering eunuchs on their way home to their queen, right?

     In the last couple months, I can think of three specific ways this grafting has played out in our lives.  Starting from the most recent, Ron Curtis approached me with some of Lilyan’s prosthetic bras.  Ron asked if I thought I could find some women in the community who might need them but could not afford them.  During the process of getting the word out about this wonderful gift, I learned some great lessons, most of which were very positive.  The dumbfounding negative lesson to me was the fact that prosthetic bras could not be sold by resale stores.  Since they were considered “medical equipment,” there were laws in place to prevent a place like the Discovery Shop (proceeds benefit cancer services) or Winnie’s Wishes from making a bit of money off the resale of such items.  By the way, men, if you have ever bought a nice bra for your wife, and then add “medical device” to that, and you get an idea of the cost and the burden, never mind the fact that this “medical device” stays outside the body.  So, word got out that we had some devices for those in need but lacking in resources.  This week, those words landed on the ears that needed to hear them.

     Unfortunately, from my perspective, Ron was not at church to reap the harvest he had sown.  Women who had been forced to live without a prosthetic bra, and with the accompanying self image, were in the building in tears, and they were not mad that I was making them share.  The idea that someone would think of their need and not charge them outrageously for it simply left them crying.  I think, had we had tons of these, I could have found a home for them all.  Each of them asked why.  I told them that Ron had lived with them and their hurt through his bride and her experiences.  Unlike many men, especially legislators apparently, Ron knew how badly these bras were needed.  God had given him eyes and a heart to understand.  He would have been less than a good steward had he not done what he had.  Ron was a branch, grafted in Christ’s vine, perfectly nurtured to produce fruit in these circumstances.  And God was glorified in that those ladies who had been created in His image before the disease and surgery marred them, felt like they had been embraced by God Himself!

     Another way this grafting has played out was in the Ministry of Presence.  Sue had asked to take ashes this past Ash Wednesday.  While out there, she was approached by a man who was hurting so badly that he did not even think himself worth having ashes imposed, let alone prayer or communion.  I will commend the tale to you and encourage you to ask Sue about this, but the gist of the story is the hurt.  This man, in a bit of a drunken fight with his girlfriend, was dealing with the guilt that he had killed her.  Truthfully, she had climbed into the truck, grabbed his gun, and shot herself, but he blamed himself and his words during a drunken fight.  Now he found himself on Ash Wednesday perceiving himself to be so guilty that God could never forgive him, let alone remind him of his mortality.

     As Sue and Robin and Charlie and Jane and I all talked with Sue later and among ourselves, a remarkable back story appeared.  While each of us no doubt could have ministered to this trucker, Sue had been more directly affected by suicide in her past.  Where to us God’s words and God’s comfort might be accurate, her understanding of the man’s condition gave her an empathy and expertise which we, despite all our well-meaning, would have lacked.  Yet, here Sue was.  This man, with this particular guilt, happened to be passing through the truck stop at that particular time, with Sue just thinking to take ashes “just in case.”  Talk about a God incident!  Talk about a eunuch passing by and wondering what he was reading!  She had been nurtured in Christ’s vine, knew the guilt and the healing offered.  And she was position to minister.
     My favorite story played out among someone whom I would consider not very active.  They are more than “in orbit” but far less than actively involved in our ministry, though they meet the canonical requirements to be considered active.  I was at his place of business, however, when he had a bit of a problem.  When he finally got back to me, he gave me a bit off my bill, by way of apology.  Naturally, having used the extra time to talk and watch, I was not particularly grumpy about the delay.  When I suggested that he not worry about it, he was very insistent.  I would treat any customer this way, Father.  Unfortunately, as we were settling up, his friends heard the exchange.  One, in particular, was very loud in his protestations.
     I won’t recount the entire conversation as it was earthy.  Suffice it to say that, once the friend realized I was a priest, he was suitably embarrassed.  But then he turned on “ours.”  It’s really your fault since you started with the language.  I would have never talked like that around one of your customers had I known he was a priest.  This parishioner looked at me before I could tell him it was not a big deal and asked you care if I handle this, Father.  What followed was a layman’s account of Christ’s ministry that his friend needed to hear.
     With whom did Jesus hang out? was the first question.  When the friend answered with apostles, saints, and martyrs the parishioner responded that normal human beings were changed into saints and apostles and martyrs.  What were they before He started working with them?  The friend correctly answered fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors (they fought over what would be the equivalent today with card players or enforcers dominating the conversation).  Our brother asked the friend if he ever paid attention to the language used by those professions.  This prompted a lot of laughter on the part of all those there.  But then the friend reminded all those there that Jesus was the Son of God, that He never would have allowed those around him to talk like the parishioner had around me.
     Excitedly, my parishioner told his friend how wrong he was.  Jesus met everyone where they were.  He never left them there, they were usually changed by encounters with Him, but He never left them there.  He proceeded to explain the use of “earthy” language in many of the stories and parables.  This parishioner, who has been in church for fewer than 2 dozen services in my nearly six years here, became suddenly fluent in Greek and Hebrew and an accurate critic of some modern translations (the KJV, in particular).  He proceeded to explain in detail some of the images that Jesus uses to describe us and then, like a world class evangelist, refused to leave his friend in his guilt.  What followed was the rest of the stories which demonstrated God’s wish to save all and the Empty Tomb’s testimony that He had the power to accomplish all that He purposed!
     When he finished, he looked back at me and asked Was that pretty accurate?  Having heard a couple connections in his testimony that I had never made in Scripture, I simply shook my head affirmatively and said “yes, I believe so.”  The friend was obviously shaken.  Though they had been friends for some time, they had never talked about their faith.  In a space of about five minutes, he heard the weirdest rendering of the Gospel he had ever heard.  He look at me, gestured to him, and asked Is he right?  I nodded again.  You guys have a weird understanding of Jesus and God, he stated matter of factly.  How so, I asked.  Well, the idea that Jesus talked with fishermen and prostitutes, for example.  Did he, I asked.  Ya, but come on, him, pointing at his friend, I mean, if you knew him, you’d know that he has a colorful and earthy past.  I asked how long they had known each other.  He shared.  I asked if he had ever heard his friend talk like this.  Of course not.  I asked him what accounted for his friend’s testimony that evening, given all the years they knew each other.  He had no answer.  I asked if maybe God’s grace explained it.  He admitted that something sure had changed in his friend.  I offered that maybe it was the peace that had come when he learned that Christ had died for him and all his faults and commissioned him to seek the least and the lost in His name.  Maybe, but who on earth is ever going to listen to him, pointing at his friend, when he goes all religious.  “You did, for starters.”  I pointed out.  Maybe all of this was just so God might reach into your life again.  Where and when do you guys meet?

     Brothers and sisters, that is what is meant by being grafted.  That is what is meant by abiding in His life giving vine.  That is what meant by fruit that glorifies our Father in heaven!  As I have shared these stories, I realize that so many of you have your own.  Each of you have “rough edges” where Christ’s saving embrace has changed your life.  Maybe it’s in an adoption, maybe it is in a place of employment, maybe it’s a relationship.  Whatever you have experienced has uniquely prepared you to meet someone else on the road of salvation and explain to them those stories that are the reminders of hope and the promise of glory!  So, who in life is passing by you wandering, how can I know unless someone explain it?  Why not take a chance, answer the questions, and see what fruit is born in your branch . . .