Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why won't the cops do anything? Or, the economic reality facing law enforcement in potential human trafficking cases . . .

If strip joints are a sight where Human Trafficking occurs and prostitution is suspected anyway, why aren’t the cops always under cover there? -- It is a question which pops out nearly all the time at presentations.  Depending upon the time, I’ll usually answer with a “law enforcement economics” blurt.  If we have time after the meeting, I will usually be cornered and asked to explain further.  If there is no time after the meeting, it will come up in subsequent calls.  I can’t speak to every law enforcement jurisdiction in the United States, but forms of this answer are fairly common, anecdotally speaking.

Police chiefs answer to some sort of political structure, be it a city council, a county government, a mayor, somebody.  Those in positions of setting the police budget want to make sure that the money is being spent wisely (for example, would higher overtime pay be offset by an increase in the number of officers?).  When making their decisions about how to allocate resources, all heads of law enforcement have to analyze the situation and predict the likely outcome.  Do some stings/undercover operations fail?  Of course.  My guess is that their budget includes an informal “unsuccessful investigations” understanding.  While many of us in the world look at the cost of failure, particularly in the business world, police heads must look just as hard at the likely outcome of success.  And simply put, successful investigations do not provide the bang for the buck that we as voters and politicians as budget setters want for our tax money.  I am not at all implying that our law enforcement officers ignore crimes.  Quite the contrary, I think most are very good and are more than willing to arrest slavers.  But, at this time in the fight, they are better able to predict the successful outcome of drug stings and money laundering stings than with slaves.  Why do I think that?

Let’s make up a business.  We’ll call it Fleshies and pretend that it is a strip club / sports bar / great place for men to hang out.  Once inside, patrons might become aware of other non-marketed “services.”  Some of these services may even be offered without the knowledge or consent of the owner.  Word gets around that Fleshies sells sex for money.  Police hear the rumors and decide to investigate the allegations.  During the course of their investigations, there comes a point where the allegations seem probable.  What should they do?  Those of us on the outside would say “Fight prostitution!  FIght sex slavery!”  But the local police chief remembers the history of the force.  Maybe it was a predecessor.  Maybe it was a campaign joke in a prior elections.  But at some point in the collective or individual memory, and undercover sting did not get the result they were looking for.  Here’s what happened . . . 

Undercover officers were used to try and locate the criminals and their activities within Fleshies.  After a certain number of hours worked (how much overtime?) with partners and other observing officers outside the premises (again, how much overtime?), the undercover agent finally is able to solicit sex for money (prostitution).  Bear in mind, the girls (and boys) are trained by their pimps, slaves, and employers how to spot a cop.  So finding a girl willing to trade sex for money is way more difficult than you or I might think.  But our officer was good.  The prostitute clearly offers sex to the undercover officer for a clearly stated price.  His bug catches the prostitute’s offer on disc/tape/mp3 clearly on the equipment outside.  So he calls for backup (or backup hears the commission of the crime and comes bursting in).  Everybody is rounded up and carted down to the station for booking.

Before the alleged prostitutes are even entered into the system, the defense attorney is there.  He takes the arresting officer/s and asks “Did you witness this defendant offer sex in exchange for money?”  The officers are truthful and state “no” about every person arrested except the one who unfortunate lady who did.  The lawyer, who is often paid by the owner of Fleshies to represent her, tells our unfortunate lady he will negotiate a plea for her.  She will plead guilty.  The owner will cover the fines and lawyer fees and add it to the totals she owes.  The upshot?  For however many hours spent by however many officers and for whatever was spent on the surveillance equipment, the police get a prostitution plea deal.  Do the math in your head.  If it takes a couple months to get admitted to the special rooms, how many officer hours have been spent?  How long has the equipment been used to try and get that recording?  And for what?  A prostitution case!  In many jurisdictions, this might be treated as a misdemeanor offense, especially if she is young and this is her first arrest.  Add to that the public sentiment that prostitution is a victimless crime, and we can begin to see why police chiefs won’t specifically target such businesses unless there are other crimes such as money laundering, drug sales, and other “glamorous” offenses for which they can generate good publicity and public goodwill about their budget.  Given the likely outcome of a successful prosecution sting, are law enforcement decision makers acting wisely and as good stewards of our tax dollars when they pursue such cases?  Or, would we as the general public rather see them get the dangerous people, the drunk drivers, the pedophiles, the drug dealers, and the murderers off our streets?

One last question, a sort of Hail Mary, may have popped into your head as you read this brief answer:  What about the Feds?  If Human Trafficking is a federal offense, can’t they do anything about it?  In essence, it comes down to the fact that we are all presumed innocent under the law.  Strip joints like our imaginary business Fleshies, by and large, are subject to the local laws and ordinances.  For the feds to raid such a business, there must be probable cause.  You and I might suspect that the girls are underage.  We might suspect that they are not being paid.  We might even suspect that an owner is keeping them hooked on drugs and alcohol to make them pliable.  But unless there is a complaining witness or some other corroborating evidence offering proof, the hands of the feds are tied.  And make no mistake, the bad guys know the rules.  They will often have forged documents in their offices that were presented by the “dancer” satisfying the requirement that they not employ underage dancers.  Their defense will be “hey, she told us she was old enough.  See.”

What to do?  Truthfully, there is not a lot that the faithful can do in the face of such practices.  Some communities have started documenting in various ways the activities of such establishments.  Perhaps such efforts will one day result in a RICO prosecution.  One thing I try and encourage the faithful to do is to pray.  Pray that those things hidden are brought to light.  Pray that the girls being victimized are given the strength and grace and protection to be the complaining witness needed by law enforcement and prosecutors.  And pray that the Holy Spirit guides the community of faith in its response.  The truth is that this scenario plays itself out in any number of different jurisdictions around the country every day.  What might work in Texas might fail in Washington.  What works in Florida might fail California.  What is successful in Iowa might flop gloriously in Maine.  All we can do is continue to tell the stories of successes and failures, and of those practices happening right under our noses, and tell the story of the saving God who refused to allow us to be treated like chattel and redeemed us from our own bondage.  Perhaps, through faithful obedience and faithful Gospel telling, we can help reshape a world in which even the possibility of enslavement is so revolting that such establishments cannot survive.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What would you have Him do for you?

     For those of you new or newish to the congregation, I have to apologize this day.  I know, we’re not supposed to apologize before we give speeches or sermons, but I can’t help it the day after diocesan convention.  The week before convention requires that we stuff four days of work into three.  Then there is the loss of my supposed “off day,” which is really a day where people try not to pester me with “stuff,” but gets used a lot for reflection.  There is always the hope that one can do real work during the boring parts of convention and clergy conference, but it is usual hard even when there are lots of boring parts and clergy conference does not “feed us.”  This year was a bit unusual in that clergy conference was excellent, and there was not a lot of down time during the convention.  We were moving at a pace doing some work, so there was very little time for reflection for good pastoral application of this week’s readings.  So if today’s sermon sounds more like a paper, I am truly sorry.  If, however, it sounds pretty good and fairly pastoral, know that God showed up again because your pastor had no real time this week!

     The healing of Bartimaeus is well known even outside Christian circles.  If you mention his name, people who do not often come to church will ask “wasn’t that the blind guy?”  Now, they might confuse these details with other stories, but the restoration of Bartimaeus’ sight is fairly well known.  it is, perhaps, so well known that we who hear the story probably overlook some of the details and the accompanying lessons.  As I was reflecting on the passage earlier this week, I was struck that there are several messages embedded in the text which speak directly to a few of our discussions over the past few weeks.

     One of those lessons is that healing, true healing, requires perseverance.  Now you and I might be tempted to think that Bartimaeus’ efforts were not that hard, but look again at the text.  When Bartimaeus calls out, what happens?  The crowd tries to silence him.  You can well imagine why.  The crowd is excited.  Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem.  If He is the messiah, the Romans are about to be thrown out.  The reign of David is about to be re-established.  Who has time for a begging blind man in the midst of such excitement.  Certainly none of the crowd has time for him.  And if they don’t Jesus must be far too busy to pay any heed to Bartimaeus’ plea for help.  Besides, some in this crowd has no doubt witnessed the behavior and attitude of the Apostles and disciples.  When parents brought their children, how the disciples respond?  Much like the crowd does in today’s reading.  And yet, knowing the anticipation, Bartimaeus cries out.  Even when they rebuke him, Bartimaeus is determined to make his case known.  Talk about taking a chance.  As a blind man, Bartimaeus is utterly dependent upon the good will of others in order to live.  If they do not toss coins on this cloak during their trips to or from Jerusalem, he has no hope.  He is taking a terrible chance aggravating those upon whom he must depend for food and shelter by calling after Jesus.

     We should not be surprised, however, at the required perseverance.  Think to some of your favorite stories.  How many of them require perseverance on the part of the one healed?  The Syro-Phoenician woman argues with Jesus about the puppies to save her daughter’s life.  The friends of the paralyzed man must literally tear the roof off a house to get their friend to the Healer.  The menstruating woman must fight through the crowds and risk the wrath of having made the Rabbi unclean for worship by touching His hem.  Jairus and Lazarus’ sisters must overcome their own crowds and fears to see an incredible miracle in their midst.  I could go on and on.  Why, do you think, does Jesus require perseverance for healing?  What kind of value do we place on unearned, easy things?  Ever notice how a child takes care a toy that they purchased with their own money than, say, toys they have been given by others?  One of our jobs as parents is to teach our children to understand the work involved in the accumulation of “things.”  And if we bad parents have figured that out, do you think our Father in heaven has?  If healing required no perseverance on our part, with what kind of value would we esteem it.  We have talked the past couple weeks about those whose commitment to community worship seems to be flagging.  If we truly understand the cost of our healing, of our salvation, can you ever imagine not having the energy or the time or the whatever to worship God and to give Him thanks and praise?  Those of us who understand the cost remember the beatings, the punches, the shame, the ignominy of the cross.  We understand our salvation cost Him everything!  And yet He went willingly to that cross.  He knew the effort, He sweated blood at the prospect, yet still He set His face on Jerusalem for our sakes.  It seems only a bit fair on His part if He makes us work for it.  It seems only fair that He make us persevere for our own healing so that we can better appreciate, better give thanks, for what was done for us.  Such is one of the lessons of Bartimaeus.

     Another lesson is that one must go to Jesus for that healing.  Each of us in the course of life is given at least one encounter with the Risen Christ.  Each one of us, during our lives, comes face to face with the Savior who asks us “What do you want Me to do for you?”  As a counterpoint to Bartimaeus, Mark records others questions asked by other individuals.  Herod kills the prophet when his question is answered.  Pilate will put Jesus to death when the crowd answers his.  But Jesus is able to overcome all our prior bad answers.  Like Bartimaeus, we might be tempted to ask our Lord for money.  We might be tempted to ask for physical health.  We might be tempted to ask for any number of things which short-change Jesus in our eyes and cause us to underestimate what has been done for us.  Our answer to the Lord should be for healing.  The great thing is that He knows what we need far better than we.  And so when we pray for healing, we may not get a cure or restoration of our bodies, but we will, hopefully, be given the grace of the inner peace which comes only from His Spirit.  If we know that our life has been redeemed eternally, we can face all of life’s vicissitudes confidant that we will be glorified in Him.  If we have committed ourselves to Him, we know with absolute certainty that He will redeem us even from death.  We can face physical difficulties, we can carry emotional baggage, we can deal with whatever life throws at us because we know that He has never reneged on a promise.  He has never failed to keep His word.  Ever.  And so He that asks what we want from Him can accomplish anything for us.  We need only His healing and His indwelling Spirit.

     Another lesson is the urgency and importance of the decision.  One of the seductions of God’s Enemy is that we have time.  Far too often we believe that we can wait to make a decision when confronted by Christ.  What we forget is that time truly flees and that a decision to not make a decision is a decision.  Think of the rich young man.  When confronted by the same Teacher, how does he respond?  He goes away sad.  Bartimaeus, by contrast, chooses to take advantage of the moment.  Bartimaeus clearly believes that Jesus is prominent in the re-establishment of God’s kingdom.  We know this by his acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of David.  Nobody else in Mark’s Gospel uses that title.  Though the crowd encourages him to be quiet, Bartimaeus calls out for the personal attention of the One he believes is anointed.  When given the attention, there is no “let me think about it.”  When Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you,” Bartimaeus does not ask if he can get back to Jesus with an answer.  The question requires an immediate response.  Otherwise, the chance for healing may pass by for forever.

     The last lesson offered by Bartimaeus, I think, is the action after the healing.  Think  of Bartimaeus’ response in light of the tragic response of the rich young man a few verses earlier.  When offered healing, the replacing of his ultimate faith from money to God, the rich young man chooses poorly and goes away sad.  He is one of those most pitied souls who rejected the personal invitation of our Lord.  Bartimaeus, by contrast, follows where Jesus will lead, even if it is the road to Calvary.  When Bartimaeus gets up to go to Jesus, he takes off his cloak.  The significance of the action is lost on us.  When Bartimaeus begged, he would spread his cloak out before him to catch alms.  By leaving it behind, Bartimaeus is visibly signaling to us where his faith now resides.  He trusts in the Anointed One who has worked countless miracles in the midst of the people.  He will go wherever Jesus will lead.  Those things in this life upon which he depended, he has visible and significantly foresworn.  

     Speaking to this crowd of Bartimaeuses here today, I cannot claim any special need to drive this point home.  Each of you here gathered who has been healed by God no doubt follows where He leads you.  I just spent a couple days reflecting with others on our ministry.  For 47+ years some of you, and this congregation as a body, has fed the hungry in our community.  For the past half dozen years or so many of you have ministered to Battered Women and the children in our community.  Many of you are engaged, either physically, emotionally, or financially in the modern Exodus of which we seem to be in the vanguard.  Nearly three dozen of you faithfully fed the hungry for almost five years until those in charge were seduced away from following our Lord.  Our list can go on and on.  You know, as a people healed by God and promised eternal life in His kingdom no matter what may befall you in this life, that there are no observers in the kingdom.  Everyone has a job to do.  No one is too important or too insignificant to work for His glory.  And it is increasingly hard, as many of you have told me over the years, to watch God work amazing events and not get excited, not get involved.  Guess what?  We are not alone!  When God is working incredible miracles in the lives of people it is hard not to get excited.  It is hard not to throw away your cloak and join the procession.  That’s why it is called Good News.  That’s why we are told to share the thankful joy we have in our hearts.

     Two last reminders.  It is easy to get caught up in the important work of God and forget that God calls all of us and all those whom we meet.  The ones who try to silence Bartimaeus include His followers, our spiritual ancestors.  Yet, through the noise, through the seeming odds, God hears Bartimaeus cry, calls him, and posits the question:  “What do you want Me to do for you?”  Over the din of the world, He hears all our pleas and asks us the same question.  No one, not ourselves, not anyone we meet, is beneath His notice.  And no one, no matter how many times they have heard the question and given a wrong answer, no one is not able at any time to change their answer and ask for His healing.  It really is that simple.  And from such a right answer “Lord I want to see again,” God works amazing healing in lives.  Not only was Bartimaeus healed that day, but all of us who have heard the story and followed after, encouraged by his persistence and faith, are reminded that even we are on the sidelines, even when we are beneath the notice of others, our Lord is reaching out that hand of grace asking us “What do you want Me to do for you?”  Pray that as we each hear that question, we give the answer of Bartimaeus and so draw others into that holy embrace.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lord, I have a favor to ask . . .

     This week Peter gets a bit of a break.  Understand Peter is often the voice of the Apostles.  When he “gets it” in Scripture, all the Apostles are deemed to have gotten it; when he “fails to get it,” all are presumed to have missed the teaching as well.  But this week, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, get to prove how hard Jesus’ teachings were to understand on the other side of the Resurrection.  Both men approach Jesus and ask for a favor.  They wish to sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus when He comes into His glory. James and John are thinking in terms of worldly kings and worldly courts.  In essence, though they probably would disagree with us, James and John wish to relieve the people of Judea from the self-serving rule of the Romans and to replace it with their own self-serving rule.  “But these are the Apostles, James and John, they know the heart and mind of Jesus.  Surely they would not rule self-servingly, right? you might be tempted to argue.  But in asking to sit at the hand of power, both are simply offering themselves in place of others.  They would be the generals and councillors of the new kingdom, second only to the Rabbi!  It’s no wonder they other Apostles get mad.  Now they, too, will have to serve these brothers if Jesus grants the request.

     Jesus, of course, knows what they are asking and what He must do.  He states that He is not in charge of who sits where; it is His job to drink the cup of suffering and be plunged into that fear of separation from God.  He will suffer hardship and trial as He comes into His glory.  Do they want to share in that to enter into His glory.  At this point, the brothers do not understand Jesus’ question, but they assert that they will drink the cup and be baptized like Him.  Jesus takes their enthusiasm, and the desire of the other Apostles who have heard the request, and tries to use that enthusiasm to teach them what God means by great.  Just as the messiah was chosen to draw others to God through loving, faithful service of others, so, too, are His disciples.  Jesus’ disciples are meant to be His ambassadors on earth, modeling the very behavior their Lord exhibited when He strolled the earth.  Certainly, Jesus’ teaching is unexpected.  As we have discussed countless times, the culture was looking for the conquering hero.  Jesus was, ultimately, a conqueror, but His manner of victory confounds all.

     In serving those whom He came to ransom, Jesus instructs them and us, He best demonstrates the Father’s love for all.  When we could not pay the ransom asked by Jesus in 8:37 some two chapters earlier, God Himself provides the ransom through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of His only Son.

     In one sense, the readings for this day are a big “duh” for those of us gathered here.  We understand “ransom” far better than many of our contemporaries just by virtue of our work in human trafficking.  We have seen the results of such servanthood through Angel Food, Community Meal, Winnie’s Place, the Prison Ministries, and whatever one or ones you feel called to serve.  Many of us have been asked why we do what we do, so we know the impact that loving service can make on those in the world around us.  Heck, some of us are asked in our places of work, in the hospitals, and in other “secular” locations how we face the uncertainties we do with joy, peace, calm, or whatever name those around us give “it.”

     One question demanded by Christ in this passage, however, is the personal pursuit of glory in the lives of His disciples.  So many of us pursue honor and glory as we engage in the world, and yet we proclaim to all who would listen to us that “we really are Christians.”  Can a Christian, can a disciple of Christ, be at all concerned with honor and glory knowing that our Lord has drunk from the cup of wrath for our sake and undergone such humiliation for our sake?  Put differently, knowing that our Lord suffered and died for us, should we be at all concerned with what the world judges as success?  I am not, of course, just talking about those whose seeming goal is to find the next great position in the church.  We all know those members of the clergy who seem to be angling for a purple shirt, a better title, a larger staff to cater to their whims.  I am told that St. Alban’s has suffered through an individual in its past, so you know firsthand how the angling and plotting interferes with pastoring.  But what of us in the pews?  How many of us play by different rules during the week than those espoused by the Lord?  How many of us angle for promotions?  How many of us serve the almighty dollar?  How many of us think our beloved status is best reflected by the car or truck that we drive, the house that we live in, or the clothes that we wear.  I suppose, being Episcopalians, I should add the  brand of the liquor which we drink.  Far too easily, it seems, we allow the standards of the world to encroach upon the mission and attitude of the church and His disciples.  Far too often, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the charms of the world and to forget our true calling.

     Thankfully and mercifully, we have as our pattern of life a Savior who turned greatness on its head.  He achieved honor and power not through inheritance or through a conquering army but through selfless and life-giving love of others.  True, the world still acts as if it is not yet subject to Him.  But we, His disciples, know better.  We know that He who Ascended will return and that at that day every knee shall bend and every head shall bow and every voice will proclaim Him as Lord.  We know that our ransom has been paid by the only One who could ever hope to pay it.  And we know that at that day when He returns to complete what He has begun in us, He will call us forth not as slaves but as brothers and sisters, heirs in the kingdom of His Father.  Then and only then, will we understand that the trappings of this life are garbage as St. Paul instructs us.  Then, and only then, we will understand the greatness and honor and glory to which He and our Father calls us, the honor and glory and greatness which is not fleeting, but eternal!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Rich young men and women in Davenport . . .

     Our Gospel lesson comes with an illustrative reminder of our Father’s, our Daddy’s, desired relationship with us.  Though it is often hard to remember, given how the lectionary editors break up the readings, children figure prominently into these passages.  Remember, Jesus takes the child into His lap and tells the disciples that they are called to serve the least.  He reminds His disciples and us that it would be better for a millstone to be hung around our necks and us to be cast into the ocean than for us to mislead a child.  Finally, when the disciples become indignant that parents are bringing their children to the Rabbi, Jesus tells His disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to those like the children.  I focus especially on this image this morning so that you might understand better Jesus’ reproof of the rich young man in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Remember, in the midst of this judgment, a godly judgment, Jesus loved the man.  His judgment was not meant to be condemning.  No, Jesus knows what separates the man from the love of His Father and wants the young man to become His disciple and to be reconciled to the Father.  The man’s rejection has tragic implications, but that is a message for another day.

     What I wanted to focus on this morning was more given to me during conversations this week.  You might wonder how some of us can have the same attitude as the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel.  After all, none of is judged by our community as “rich.”  Heck, we are not even the wealthiest among our denomination in this community.  Few of us are able not to work.  Those retired among us must keep a close eye on their expenses.  And all of us are just a serious medical bill away from the poorhouse.  How then could this passage about a rich young man in Mark have anything to say to us?

     Notice the man’s claim and Jesus’ answer to him.  The rich young man is going fishing for a compliment when he addresses Jesus.  Jesus recognizes this and challenges the compliment.  Why do you call Me good?  God alone is good.  Jesus goes on to recite a few of the ten words, the most famous instructions / commandments of the torahNot to be deterred from his public praise from the lips of the Rabbi, the man asserts that he has kept these all since his youth.  Like Paul, whom we will meet in the book of Acts, the rich young man is righteous under the law.  How do we know?  Jesus does not call him a liar.  He looked at him and loved him.  Over time, we have lost our connectedness with another image from the Bible.  In sanitized sanctuaries, we forget the visual image of the cost of our sins.  Had you and I lived before Christ and been part of the Jewish culture, we would have been required to make appropriate sacrifices for our transgressions.  Those transgressions, and the accompanying remedy, were spelled out in the torah.  Minor sins might require the sacrifice of a dove, but “larger” sins required bigger animals and more blood.  Think for a second the blood associated with each of those sacrifices.  In a sense, my spiritual forefathers were as much butchers as priests.  But think of the image.  If every time you were forced to atone for your sin you sacrificed an animal, how bloody would be your mess?  Now you have another reason to thank Jesus for being the perfect sacrifice--as do I!

     But what sense does it make for the death and blood of another animal to atone for our sins?  Not much, except that God credited the obedience as righteousness.  Those who believed and kept the torah were judged under the law as righteous.  Notice, however, that the judgment was not something internally earned.  There is no merit deserved by those who kept the law.  God simply credits their faithful obedience s righteousness.

     The rich young man in the story today has forgotten that he does not deserve God’s grace.  He comes to the Rabbi, full of puff and praise, expecting to receive just as he has given.  Clearly, his wealth has helped to tempt him to believe this lie about himself.  We talked last week about the purpose of Job.  We reminded ourselves that our circumstances are not the indication of God’s love for us.  Our suffering does not mean that we have lost favor with God.  Our horrible circumstances do not mean that God has forgotten us.  Similarly, though, our blessings are not always indicative of our standing with God.  Just as there can be poor, marginalized outcasts among us whom God loves dearly, there can also be rich, beautiful, successful people among us who will be standing outside the door at the Marriage Feast.  The rich young man has missed the warning of Job.  His attitude is very much like that of Job’s friends, and he does not see it.  Even when warned by the one whom he addresses as good, he still does not hear the warning.  He thinks he deserves what he has been given; he thinks that he is the arbiter of righteousness before God.  He has met all the demands of the torah.  That is why, when Jesus reminds him that he must trust and follow God, he turns and goes away sad.  His wealth is a sign of his value before God, at least in his own eyes, and to give it up would be more than he could stand.  His wealth and his own ability to meet whatever needs arise have given him a false sense of security.  In a real way, he has become the example of the rich man who built bigger barns.

     In a way, we as a congregation have become much like the man.  No, unfortunately a bunch of us have not hit the lottery.  No, rather, our attitude has come to resemble that displayed by the man.  How so?  Tuesday night as we were discussing parish business, a cascade of “where is everybody” began.  Once one person started the discussion, it was like floodgates had opened.  Did somebody call for an extended summer?  Why is our attendance worse than in summer vacation season?  What is it we are doing wrong that our own members don’t feel called to come and worship?  The Vestry was right to notice our disconnect--it is their responsibility to address such issues.  Our financial situation, while not great, has been much, much worse.  Certainly, our ministries are thriving, both corporately and individually.  And, truth be told, we are getting older.  Health concerns are becoming a growing issue for a segment of our congregation.  Yet, where is everyone? (I say that noting that the ones who likely need most to answer the question did not drag themselves out of bed on a stormy Sunday morning for church.)  Your senior warden had an interesting observation.  Grant noticed that we serve in a national church with very low expectations in a diocese which mirrors those expectations and so we, as members, come to mirror it in our parish.  Attendance just is not something we demand of ourselves, and we have echoed that culture in our parish.  Grant was right.  We as a national church will claim a couple million members to anyone who will listen to us, but there are fewer than 500,000 people gathered with us today domestically in worship.    And yet all of us, all of us gathered in this denomination in this country at our baptism or confirmation pledge to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.

     Typical of the way God works in our life, that meeting was not to be the only time our corporate attendance was discussed this week.  As has been the case now for some years, I have ended up the pastor for a bunch of people not formally a part of this group.  Twice I was asked to visit people in the hospital who are not members.  One had come a couple times.  The other had come once.  In the case of the former, she apologized when I appeared in her room.  She did not know where else to turn.  She wanted, she needed prayers.  I wasn’t her pastor in her mind, but I was the only pastor she knew.  As  I am wont to do when given the opportunity, we talked after the prayers for healing.  I eventually asked her what it was that was keeping her from worshipping God more formally.  She had not found the right fit.  So I asked her why we were not appealing.  The lady admitted she thought we might be.  She loved all our ministries -- for a small church you guys are busy!  She loved the liturgy.  She said the couple sermons she had suffered through were different -- I’m still not sure if she meant different good or different bad.  She had even thought about our healing service afterwards.  While doing it, she thought it was hard to do and somewhat out of place.  As she reflected, though, she decided it was biblical.  She knew enough of her Bible from childhood Sunday School to remember the prayers and laying on of hands.  In fact, truth be told, our healing service is what convinced her to ask the hospital chaplain to call.  She knew we prayed and believed that God still healed.  She needed to be bathed in that prayer and certainty that God acts last week.  Admittedly, I was confused.  Everything sounded fairly good.  So I asked her what had kept her from worshipping with us.  “I guess it’s because your church is no different than anyone else.  For all their talk and for all their work, they’re still hypocrites in a way.  I guess your ministries and worship did not match your people.”  Knowing what was to follow, I asked her to continue.  She said that there were never more than 40 people worshipping with her.  “How thankful and joyful can they really be if only 40 are called to worship God each week?”  Ouch.

     The second is better in a way.  This patient on Friday had a loved one who attends.  We talked a bit about the family member who attends, but I was way more interested in her condition.  Her condition, I think as does our parishioner, is more serious than she understands.  But during I talk, she took the time to thank me for our work and our ministry.  Her loved one has been changed entirely from her perspective--you and I would call it transformed in “church speak.”  She then joked that the change has not come without some problems.  When I asked for an example, she complained that family events on Sunday can never start before noon -- she has to go to church before she’ll do anything else.  What was just as bad, she said ruefully, was that she is always inviting them to come.  I asked if she thought the change was fake.  She was adamant that the family believed it was very real.  Naturally, I was curious as to why she begged off coming to church with her loved one.  “Life gets in the way, you know?  Sometimes I am sleepy.  Sometimes I have errands to run.  Sometimes I don’t have a good excuse but I still don’t agree to go with her.  Know what I mean?”  Unfortunately I do.  By the various nods, so do you.

     As I said a few moments ago, the group that I should be addressing is maybe not the group that dragged themselves out during a stormy Sunday to worship God.  And yet, you and I are responsible for allowing that culture of low expectations to go on unaddressed.  It is, admittedly, my job to remind people that they are called to worship God.  It is my job to remind people of the joy and thankfulness they should feel when considering whether to come to church on Tuesdays or Thursdays or Sundays.  But it is part of your responsibility as members of this body to wonder where the other parts of the body are.  It is your responsibility to love your neighbor as yourself and to fight against such an attitude of low expectations.  As I said, we don’t want the sick coming and sharing and we certainly understand when frailty plays a role later in life.  And, we have several people whose work schedules interfere on Sundays.  But should we be understanding about hangovers?  About wanting to sleep in?  About errands?  About a whole host of excuses that are used around here?  It is our job to remind one another, when other things get in the way of worship, to remind each other than nothing is more important in our lives than intentionally worshipping and thanking Him for what He has done in our lives and will do for us eternally.  That, brothers and sisters, is our true calling.  That is our work, our liturgy.

     And our acceptance of such an attitude of casual attendance has consequences beyond this parish.  Last week I was at a Roman Catholic conference presenting what we do and fielding questions.  As is often the case, the congregation-you- became a collection of saints in their minds.  I am always asked during those discussions who are the people who do these ministries.  I am always asked if we do anything else.  As people outside us hear these things, you become larger than life.  Then somebody always asks “How many of you gather in worship every week?”  When I answer that question there is often the follow-up “out of how many?”  People think for a few moments we have caught the “it” of Acts, only to find out in a couple questions that we are really no different from anyone else.  Like the first lady in the hospital, we are hypocritical when we claim that God is the priority in our lives.  This goes on ecumenically and within our own parishes around the diocese and domestic part of the church.  It even impacts those in the church around the world.  From time to time I am asked by my international Facebook friends about our  ministries and worship.  Can you imagine how deflating my answers might sound, at times, to churches whose Vestries must check the grounds for IEDs before and at the end of every worship service? The low expectation we accept with respect to worship diminishes us in the eyes of those who are so impressed by our works.  And we become in their eyes a church that seems interested in doing works and less interested in proclaiming God’s grace.

     Do you truly understand what God has done for you in Christ?  Do you truly understand the grace that He has given you in accepting you as a beloved son or beloved daughter in Christ?  One of the ways that you might better answer that question is through your commitment to worship Him.  Like those who look to their checkbooks to see if they are truly good stewards of their money, you and I would do well to look to our attendance to help discern whether we have hearts that are truly thankful and full of joy.  If we are easily dissuaded from worship, from the vows we took at our baptism or confirmation, perhaps we are not the people we think we are or the people He calls us to be.

     The great news, of course, is that He looks on us and loves us.  Repeatedly, He asks us to follow Him.  It sounds so simple, and yet there are so many temptations to do anything but.  Our number one obligation, our number one command, is to love Him with all our heart, all our strength, and all our mind.  Yes, we can do that in individual prayers.  Yes, we can thank Him at all times and in all places.  But as a community of faith, you and I are called to gather in His name, to sing His praises, to lift one another up, to cheer one another on, to mourn with one another, to celebrate to one another, and to encourage one another to repent when necessary.  Brothers and sisters, I have homework for you this week.  It has two parts.  First, I want you to consider prayerfully if you are who you think you are, or are you like the rich young man?  Are you willing to follow God, but only on your terms?  If so, take this opportunity to remember that He is still looking lovingly on you and inviting you to follow Him.  Because we have made poor choices in our past is no excuse for poor choices in our present or future.  Second, as you visit with other members in the coming days and weeks, gently find out why they miss so much church.  We are all diminished, far more than we would ever expect, when people absent themselves by choice just as we are diminished when people are forced to miss because of health or work.  Lovingly remind them that you missed them.  Lovingly remind them that we all did.  And if your relationship is such that you can help disciple them, spend some time answering those questions that are posed by this week’s Gospel lesson.  Who knows, maybe through our faithful obedience and His amazing grace, we can begin to change that culture of low expectation not just within our parish, but in the wider Church, and even in the world!


Monday, October 8, 2012

Elephants and intentions . . .

     Am I living in sin?  Some six years ago, when I arrived in Davenport and at this parish, my first reading dealt with the question of divorce and remarriage.  I preached on the subject blissfully unaware of all the spiritual wedgies being handed out that morning.  I know I couldn't get Kathleen to stop laughing to tell me what had her so amused when she called that Tuesday or Wednesday.  It seems that a number of her former flock had reached out to her to complain.  She knew what I was in for, but she also said it was a sermon that needed to be preached and heard.  A number of our families are touched by divorce and remarriage, some two or three times.  When I arrived six years ago, some had never really considered what they had done in light of God's instructions for us.  Others, as is always the case with any subject, could not put it out of their minds.  Their adultery was ever on their minds, and it interfered with their relationship with God and, to a degree, with their current spouse or their opportunities to find a new spouse.  As with good sermons, that day in July the comfortable were afflicted and the afflicted were comforted.  I know a lot of the feeling out process with a new clergy was short circuited.  Months of getting to know each other was wiped out in a couple weeks.

     I take that stroll down memory lane to remind those of us who participated in those conversations that today's passage from Mark was not our reading that day.  I had to remind a number of those who came to see me that Mark's teaching was not the subject that day in 2006.  Still, his teaching cast a long shadow over the lives of many of us.  As we moved from discussion to discussion this passage became more the subject of our talks than our assigned reading that day.  It is no small wonder.  It is often used as a blunt instrument.  Abusers may not know that they are called to love their wife like Christ loved the Church, but they sure know that "real Christians" cannot divorce.  Every now and again I will hear someone from other denominations cite this passage as the reason that God has abandoned us as His chosen nation.  The idea is that because we have so much divorce, God had to give up on us.  Truthfully, I missed the part where He swore an oath with the United States, and we seem to do a lot of other things which run afoul of His teaching.  I love to watch them answer questions about when He chose us (actually, I love to watch the squirming from the spiritual wedgie, but you get the idea), but I am sick like that.

     That all being said, there is an elephant in the room.  I can choose to ignore that elephant and hope it wanders out without crushing any of you.  I could talk about that elephant and focus my time and energies on conversations that, truthfully, are more suited to pastoral conversations than sermonizing.  You all know me well enough to know that I will not ignore the elephant.  But I do think the elephant needs to be addressed with some sensitivity.  This passage is not meant to be a bludgeon.  This passage is probably not meant to be read to remind you of the guilt that you bear, the guilt that we should all have at the need for our Lord's atoning death for our sake.  Heck, this passage is not about declaring divorce and remarriage to be the greatest of the sins you have ever committed.  So what is it about?

     First of all, the conversation is thrust upon Jesus.  The Pharisees come to Him and to test Him ask Him this question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"  To be clear, the conversation is started by men who wish to test Him, who wish to challenge Him, who view Him as a threat to their power and their authority.  Although Jesus answers with the plan that God had for marriage, the bludgeon is really reserved for those who are testing Him.  In answer to their question, Jesus asks them what Moses wrote.  The reply that a man could write a certificate of divorce and dismiss her.  We can almost see the smugness in their voice.  Know that one of the theological fights of the day was over the "matter of indecency" found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  Some rabbinic traditions emphasized that indecency, a matter of misconduct, was required for their to be a legal divorce.  Others taught that any matter could be a just cause for a divorce.  Some schools argued that women could be divorced for bad meals, bad appearance, or any number of flimsy excuses.  Others held that some sort of major transgression was required.  And, to be sure, others were teaching between the two ends of the spectrum.  Although we like to think that we have devolved into the "no fault" divorce culture, the Roman world got there long before us.  At the time Mark records Hs Gospel, divorce was very easy and very informal.  Wives got to keep their dowry in the event of a divorce, but that was it.  The kids and business and house stayed with the husband.  It was pretty simple.  By the time that Mark recorded this Gospel, blended families were pretty common.  By way of an aside, think of the man in Corinth sleeping with his mother, a practice not even allowed by the pagans.  Chance are, she was a stepmother.  But I digress.  The certificate of divorce was important as it forced ex-husbands to return the ketuba, the dowry or pledged money.  I know this is really going to shock you, but some divorcing couples did not get along well.  Some ex-husbands tried to keep everything.  They did not want to pay the ex-wife anything.  The certificate and ketuba ensured that the Jewish woman had a chance to deal with the evil of divorce.  With the certificate, she could prove her right to marry someone else.  The ketuba, hopefully, was of sufficient size to keep her from begging or prostituting herself, the all-too-common unfortunate means of support for women in this age when they could not find a husband (or had been widowed or divorced).

      The point of Jesus' answer, however, is not to teach the Church how to care for divorced members and those members, such as children, impacted by divorce.  His point is to teach God's plan.  He tells them that Moses allowed this practice of divorce because of their hardness of heart.  The heart, in the ANE, was the very self of any individual.  We tend to separate mind and heart (feelings) and compartmentalize ourselves and others.  Those in the ANE simply thought of the heart as the place in oneself where one's outlook and determination were located.  Scripture often records God as describing us as stiff-necked or hard-hearted.  Literally, we are selfish and hard, caring little for the plight of others around us unless it suits us.  Jesus then goes on to describe the plan in creation.  This description is important for a couple reasons.  One, it reminds us that He knows the mind of God.  How did marriage come to be?  God created it, just as He created us.  What did He intend for marriage?  That a man and a woman would be joined as one flesh.  And notice, too, its indissoluble nature: "What God has joined together, let no one separate."  Many of those early conversations when I first arrived revolved around the difficulty of the dissolution of the marriage.  They were affected.  The former spouse was affected.  The current spouse was affected.  The kids, if there were any and no matter their age, were affected.  The new spouses kids, if there are any, are affected.  Even if the former spouses somehow remained civil to each other, as is amazingly often the case around here, still people were affected.  And let's face it, our divorces impact others in ways we cannot understand.  Maybe your children were younger when you divorced.  Ever noticed some hesitancy on the part of teachers?  How about your neighbors?  Did they treat you and your divorce, as a Christian, as another example of a typical hypocrite?  There are consequences to divorce, but that is not the focus of Jesus in this passage.  His focus is on the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, our own hardness of heart, and upon the good original plan of God.  So how should we read this passage, deal with the elephant, and be heralds of God's grace?

      It seems to me that there is some practical advice we can give with respect to this passage.  First, Jesus is answering those who have already displayed their hardness of heart and shown a willingness to read Scripture to suit their own needs, to interpret God's will to justify themselves in the eyes of others, and create burdens for others that they themselves would never consent to bear.  Think of the hand washing episode from a few chapters earlier, for example.  The Pharisees want to be seen as pious (with clean hands), yet Jesus confronts them then with the judgment that they honor God with their lips while dishonoring Him in their behavior.  If Jesus is correct in that this is the original plan of God, then any who divorce demonstrate their hardness of heart.  Those who wish to teach that marriage is anything but a one man one woman relationship likewise display their hard-heartedness.  Those who like to think we need to "test drive" our potential spouses show forth that same hard-heartedness.  Those who are now trying to expand marriage to be anything other than what God intended are showing their hard-heartedness.  Similarly, those who wish to make divorce less restrictive, less difficult, less significant are likewise showing forth a hardness of heart.  If you, sitting here, are seriously contemplating divorce for any reason other than infidelity or physical abuse, then you, too, may well be focusing on your own hardness of heart and not on God’s plan for you and your marriage.

      Next, one of Jesus' proclamations is that the kingdom of God is coming near.  His way of living and witnessing is breaking into all parts of our lives.  The best visible witness of God's kingdom is how we treat others.  Can you think of a more challenging place to show that we love others like ourselves than in marriage?  We can love others at work, we can respect others in games and competitions, we can even love others in political rallies.  But we get to go home and leave those people behind.  Spouses are always with us.  We never get a break from loving them.  That's why marriage is so important in the kingdom.  It is the best place to show forth His kingdom, His life of service, in our own lives.  When we choose to abandon that responsibility, that obligation, it is no small wonder that the world scoffs.  "You who preach love are no different than us.  You are just as selfish as we are."  It is no wonder that Christ calls the Church, His bride.

      Next, this passage teaches us about the need to let Scripture interpret itself.  We human beings are experts at looking through Scripture to justify the logs in our own eyes or the motes in the eyes of others.  True, we are human and will make mistakes about Scripture from time to time, but more often than not, Scripture will let us know when we have erred.  Is the Church today right to teach that God loves the divorced and remarried?  Absolutely.  Has Jesus already paid the price?  We've all bet our eternal lives on it.  Does that mean that divorce is not a big deal to God, as some would have us believe?  Of course not.  The same Jesus who goes willingly to the cross for our sakes is the same Anointed one who lays out what God intended.  He tells us that Moses made allowance for sin so as to prevent even greater sin and evil.  He tells us what many divorced couples already know: marriage is indissoluble.  We might have a certificate or other legal document which says we are free, but there are other ties that are not easily, if ever, undone.  Children, shared experiences, laughs, joys, and countless other ties are created which bind a man and a woman to one another.  One of the commenters that I read this week likened a marriage to two plants planted in the same pot.  They share the same soil, the same water, the same sunlight.  If the gardener ever chooses to separate the plants, the roots make it almost impossible without damaging the paired plants.  So it is with married couples.  Even couples from bad marriages have some ties that are hard to remove.  Jesus reminds us that such was His intention in the beginning.  Pastors and elders (this would be you all), would do well to remember to teach moonstruck or star-crossed couples about God's plan before they forget His intention.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus teaches us in this passage that marriage is not a "hook up" to be voided whenever one wants.  It is lifelong commitment.  It is a covenant, meant to reflect the covenant that God has sworn with His people.  Have we ever mentioned that God keeps His covenant, even at great cost to Himself?  We would do well to share that with those dating and contemplating marriage in our midst.

     How do we know that Jesus is not really dealing with the Church's pastoral response to divorce and remarriage in this passage of Mark?  Notice the difference in this question and the one recorded in Matthew 19:3.  No one is asking Jesus if they can divorce in the case of infidelity?  No one is even asking Paul if they can divorce an unbeliever?  Those seeking to trap Jesus ask Him if it is lawful for a man to divorce His wife.  Jesus answers that provision for the hardness of their heart has been made to prevent even greater sins, but He goes on to remind them that God had a plan when He established marriage between men and women.  As Jesus in God's Anointed, the truth of which is demonstrated by His Resurrection, the description of God's ideal is not up for negotiation or redefinition.

     Lastly, as much as we might like to downplay the sexual union of the man and woman in a marriage in this hyper-sexual age, we are not entirely unique in our hard hearted approach to defining marriage to suit us rather than to reflect God's glory and intention.  Those accusing Jesus in this passage think of marriage as a piece of paper.  Their concern is the "certificate of divorce."  The Greek word for that certificate is apostasion . The term was a contractual or technical term which designated the relinquishment of property.  We might think of it as a kind of quit-claim deed.  Literally, a husband issued his ex-wife this piece of paper, and apostasion, to signify that he was giving up all legal claim to ownership of her.  Without that piece of paper, no woman could prove that she was not an adulteress.  A lack of an apostasion, as was common in many cultures, mean that women were truly at the mercy of men.  While the certificate was not what God intended, it did provide a measure of opportunity for those women who followed the torah.  Jesus is using this to describe the permanence of marriage in God’s plan.  How do we know that?  Because He tells us that this certificate exists as a matter of hardness of heart and because of His following discussion.  He tells His disciples, us included, that those who remarry commit adultery.

     Jesus is telling this plan not to hurt people, but to point out how far people have strayed from God’s plan.  From God’s perspective, marriage is a permanent relationship.  It cannot be severed.  Ever.  Nothing can undo that relationship once it is created.  The two become one, never ultimately to be two ever again.  Legally, they may get to redefine their relationship with one another; never again, however, will they ever be able to think of the spouse in the same way.  His grace in choosing them, and their decision to choose their own spouse, will create consequences that last a lifetime.

     Of course, those consequences, we hope, are god and glorify God.  We hope and pray that marriages will last, will be model marriages which model servant leadership to those around them and children within them, and we hope and pray that marriages will glorify God.  Some will, but far more will not.  The problem, of course, is that we are more like the Pharisees than we like to admit.  Far too often we are hard hearted.  Far too often and far too quickly, we like to ignore God’s plan for us and set our own courses.  This all too willing embrace of our own hard heartedness is nowhere better reflected than in the marriage.  If a husband and wife cannot serve one another and honor God in that service, then they are, according to God’s standard, hard-hearted.

     Were the story to end there, we would stand as hopeless as the the Pharisees who challenged Jesus in this passage.  Our righteousness would be dependent upon our own actions, actions like the Pharisees which end up creating white washed tombs.  And in the end, we are all hard-hearted.  We are all sinners before God.  Mercifully, Jesus has an answer.  His answer for our hard-heartedness will be circumcised hearts.  But it will take the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit that is made possible only through His atoning work to circumcise our hard hearts.  It will take HIs horrible death and magnificent resurrection to create clean hearts in us and to make us heralds of His Gospel in all parts of our life, even marriage.

     In God’s plan for humanity, marriage had a special role.  Part of that role was defined in the conversation with the Pharisees who intended to trap Him.  A man and a woman were intended to become one flesh.  The culture that surrounded the institution of marriage fell short of the glory that our Father intended for it.  Women were not meant to be pieces of property to be disposed of by a quit-claim deed.  They were daughters, created in His glorious image, called to serve and be served by husbands who would without a moment’s thought lay down their lives in service of them.  It is the role of the Church, of all of us, to proclaim what God intended.

     Yes, it is also our job to minister to our brothers and sisters who have experienced he consequence of sin.  It is our job to remind all people everywhere that their Father loves them, that their Lord died for them, and that they can live forever in Him.  But the passage today was about what was intended by God, of the fact that most of us may need to repent with respect to our marriages, that we have created marriages less like what our Father intended and more of our own shaping.  Put differently, today we pay attention to the description of the elephant in the room.  Another day, we will deal with the consequences of that elephant’s thrashing and stomping.

     Much of the world spends its energy trying to subvert what God intended.  This is especially true with respect to marriage.  Returns to practices in the ANE such as “no fault divorce” and new requirements such as “I will stay with you so long as I fulfill personally fulfilled” work to separate that which God has joined together.  Movies full of seduction and the creation of false expectations tear at its foundations.  Online pornography and strip clubs try hard to take the mystery out of that mysterious union where two become one flesh.  We are reminded this day, brothers and sisters, that part of our job is to proclaim what God intended.  We do that proclamation, of course, not just through our words but also by how we live our lives within the covenant of marriage.    You and I are called to follow Him, wherever He leads us.  If He calls us into marriage then we know that we are called to reflect, however dimly, that wonderful mystery to which He compares our future rapture.  Remember, our Father created marriage to bless us.  If we intend to draw the world to Him, then it becomes incumbent upon us to reflect that blessing, not only by our words, but in our lives.  Will we fall short?  Of course, but that leads us to that next great part of His teaching, His mercy for those who repent.  Where better than a marriage can that message be modeled?  But that is a lesson for another day . . . 


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Way, the Truth, and the Life for Pat . . .

     Those of you perhaps on the fringe of Pat’s life or here to support one of his loved ones may be a bit surprised that an Episcopal priest is celebrating the life of Pat.  As most of us know, Pat was a staunch Roman Catholic until late in life.  He died a Roman Catholic, but he kind of hedged his bets.  I met Pat at the invitation of his best friend some six years ago.  Pat was in the hospital.  He had requested a visit from his parish priest the prior trip, but no one had shown up.  Don asked if I could drop in and introduce myself and offer Pat anointing and Eucharist.  A few hours later, I got out of the room!

     Those who know Pat are probably chuckling right now.  He loved to talk.  His favorite subject was probably opera, but he was well-versed in a number of subjects, as I learned over the years.  As Pat continued the recuperative process, he found his way to St. Alban’s.  He started attending the Eucharist and Bible study on Thursday mornings at my church on the west end of town.  I’d like to think it was the great teaching or the wonderful sacramental efforts which drew him in, but Pat was always quick to remind me that he came for the snacks and for the hugs!  We had eight to twelve women who were willing to share both with Pat, and he enjoyed it!

     As it turned out, we shared something in common.  Pat had explored a call to ordained life in his youth.  It was for that reason he was a welcome addition to our Thursday morning group, that and the fact he was a guy.  Pat used to joke with me that the Bible study would have been a dream come true some years ago in his youth.  So many women, and they were so quick to embrace him!  Pat also shared that he had discerned that he was not called to ordained life, and so he ended up working in social services in Chicago.  We talked a lot about his life as a youth -- dinners with Moses; bar hopping with Tut; fashion adviser for Lincoln.  He gave as well as he got.  Over the years, Pat ended up involved in a number of ministries at St. Alban’s.  He ended up in so many that I offered the last time the bishop came to my parish to have him received in to the Anglican Communion.  He declined.  He said he was pretty sure it didn’t matter to God, but he had spent enough time in seminary to be properly worried.  If it was all the same to me, he wanted to remain a Roman Catholic--in case the Pope was right!  He supported and participated in our ministries, but he wanted to hedge his bets!  He also loved the church in which he explored a call to ordained ministry.  He took great delight in Bishop Amos, the local Roman Catholic bishop, joining us in the fight against Human Trafficking.  He especially enjoyed the discussions of the Ordinariate -- if I was ok for that in the bishop’s eyes, then I couldn’t be too bad a Protestant!  Pat was a character.

     Our readings today speak of gentleness and peace.  Any who knew Pat knew him to be  gentle and peaceable soul.  He was not much for conflict by the time I met him in this life, though he did share that he was not above conflict when it came to his brother and sisters.  But Pat always had a kind word and a quick prayer.  He had a humility about him which did great honor to His Lord and Savior.  As we gather here to celebrate Pat’s life and his passing from glory into glory, there are no doubt a range of emotions passing through those of us here today.  Those of us here who thought we would be able to talk to Pat “whenever he feels better” are probably feeling a bit of remorse now, feeling like an opportunity was missed.  No doubt his brother and sisters feel the loss most poignantly.  Some of you probably are glad he is no longer suffering, and then his death hits you like a ton of bricks.  For that pain to be ended, he is no longer with you or us.  Your emotions rightly range from relief to guilt and a lot of emotions in between.  

     Similarly, those emotional roller coasters have to be raging in he hearts and minds of Kathy and her husband.  (As an aside, I have to confess that John only got a name today, at least in my mind.  Pat always referred to him in conversations with me as “Kathy and her husband.”)  John was defined by his wife’s relationship with Pat.  I hope he called you by your name when with you, John.  No doubt you both find yourself enjoying the newfound freedom of not having to care for Pat.  There are no showers to be given, no trips to the bathroom, no extra laundry, no extra meals, no nagging “Pat, did you take your pills.”  Then you recognize the cost and the absence of Pat and feel guilt.  Know that the guilt you may feel this day or any day in the future was not something your brother ever wanted you to feel, and know that the guilt is not a “message” from God.  There may well be a voice whispering your guilt in your ears, but it is not the voice of your Father or Pat’s Savior, who stands here with us this day mourning our loss but reminding us of His promises.  Pat always spoke of Kathy and her husband as the saints who cared for him.  As much as he did not want to move a few years ago, he recognized how much easier the proximity would make caring for him for the two of you.  To be fair, Kathy, and lest you get a big head around your brothers and sisters, he also spoke of you as one speaks of a sister.  (We can talk about those particular sins either after the service or in the weeks to come -- brothers and sisters are great at getting under each other’s skins and getting each other in trouble!)  He bragged about his nieces and nephews.  He was especially fond of his best friend’s family.  Though I do not know all of you here personally, the simple fact that your are here celebrating his life makes me think you were one of a number of people whom he cherished.

     I cannot speak beyond six years ago, but those things which weighed on him at the end were not really related to any of you here present.  Yes, he wished some relationships were better, but he acknowledged his own role in those.  No, the things which weighed on him at the end, which the enemy of God used to try and prick his conscience were a bit more . . . cosmic in nature.  I have heard several times the past few days how they wish he would have met a girl, settled down, and started a life together.  Pat, were he alive today, might acknowledge that he was in love once with a girl, but it was fleeting.  He would then take the opportunity to remind each one of you that he would wish you would meet a man, a man named Jesus, and fall in love with Him.

     Some two years ago, well before these last two visits to the local hospitals, Pat grabbed me between Eucharist and Bible study.  He was by no means wanting to die, but he wanted to make sure his death was not empty.  “If you are still here when I die,  would you do my funeral?”  I tried to laugh it off, but it was one of those few times, outside a discussion about opera, that Pat was very serious rather than good-natured.  “I don’t have much to offer my family and friends except my love for God and His love for me.  Would you do my funeral if you are still here, so that those unsaid things get said?”  You all know my answer. . .  

     Choosing readings appropriate for Pat’s life was more difficult than I ever thought possible.  Pat was a man of many interests and many experiences.  In one sense, a sermon about his death could be summed up pretty well by the word “duh.”  Pat was loving, gentle, humble, gracious, and any whole host of wonderful adjectives which we disciples are commanded to be.  No doubt his family knew a different side of him, as did dozens of his clients in the Chicagoland area social services, as did our Lord; but Pat tried hard to live a life that honored the God whom he loved.  I am sure he failed, more often than he wished or would like us all to know, but I am equally sure Pat repented.  The ego eimi passages of John were entirely appropriate for Pat.  Pat knew Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life.  In fact, in the way I just described it, Pat is probably chuckling now wishing he could explain the ego eimi and its significance to you.  Let’s be honest, now he understands everything better and would love to share that newfound knoweldge with us.  But even these readings leave out so much of Pat’s life, his real testimony to each one of you, of who he knew Jesus to be.

     Given the endless possibilities of his life, then, I will focus on his death.  So often the Christian message is wrongly passed on as a promise of no problems.  “If you believe in the Lord, He will take away all your cares.”  “If you believe in the Lord strong enough, He will give you everything you need.”  “If you believe in the Lord, evil cannot touch you.”  We do a disservice when we allow those myths to continue unchallenged.  While it is true that God will provide us with all our necessities, there is no assurance that we will not be impacted by evil or the consequence of sin, both our own sins and the sins of those around us.  God does promise that we have no reason to fear the ultimate consequence of evil and sin, namely death, if we accept the offer of His Son on our behalf; but nowhere does Scripture promise us that our acceptance of Christ as Lord of our life will put an end to the impact of evil in our lives.  In fact, I would say it argues the very opposite.  Acceptance of Christ as Lord of lives seems to make us a target.  Those forces which rebel against God and those who serve them seem to delight in our misfortune.  Plus, we tend to forget who to thank for deliverance unless it is obvious we were wholly inadequate to deliver ourselves.  So our message should be a message of deliverance, so as not to create a wrong impression.  Nowhere is that message of deliverance more needed to be heard than at the time of death of a loved one.

     To you his family and loved ones, I cannot begin to address your grief and mourning over the loss of Pat in a few minutes long sermon.  I can tell you that Pat faced his own death confident in God’s promises, though unaware that his death was already being redeemed by our Lord.  A couple weeks before his death, Pat had a particularly difficult day.  When I arrived, I asked if he wanted permission to die or if he wanted to fight.  Pat thought for a few moments and asked for healing.  I anointed Pat and prayed for healing.  As is usually the case, I prayed a particular prayer for Pat.  As I finished, the ICU nurse noted that I seemed to say it like I believed it.  What followed was a five or ten minute conversation reminding her of God’s promises and power.  I am not sure why her faith had ebbed that day.  She is an ICU nurse and surrounded by death and grief, so I can well imagine any number of possibilities.  But had Pat not asked for healing, I wonder what path she would have taken.  I wonder how far into the darkness she would have stumbled.

     As if that were not enough, as she and I were talking, we were interrupted by a third voice.  The man, whose loved one was also in the ICU, wanted to know why, if God was good and all-powerful, was He not healing Pat.  Knowing Pat and his faith, I was able to say with no hesitation that Pat had received the healing he really needed.  In a way, whether Pat lived or died was immaterial.  Pat knew he would live forever with his Lord.  What followed was a longer conversation about the Gospel.  As we finished, I offered to anoint and pray for his wife.  He politely declined, but said he might take me up on it another time.  I had given him a lot to think about, some of which was incredulous.  typical for me, I asked the man which was more incredulous to him: that Jesus died, was buried, raised on Easter, and ascended into heaven and will return to judge the living and the dead or the fact that he, as he got out of bed that morning, would be engaged in a substantial conversation about the Gospel and about faith that same day.  He ruefully admitted that both seemed impossible less than an hour earlier.

     Two different individuals, two different ways in which Pat’s passing was already being redeemed by God to help restore faith in the faithful and to enlarge His kingdom.  Most of us would be happy with that ending, but our Lord is a Lord who likes to go big.  As events turned out, I arrived at the hospital as Pat was dying.  It is my habit to do my rounds after I drop my kids off at school, but that day I had car problems.  A parishioner took my kids to school for me.  Later that morning, that parishioner offered me the use of his car.  After some fighting, I agreed.  I took the parishioner home and headed over to visit with Pat.  I arrived to find that Pat had just breathed his last.  The nurse was stunned.  How did you get here so quickly?  I prayed over the body, made sure the family was being called, and was asked to leave so they could clean him up a bit.  The nurse apologized that no one had given me warning.  No one had called because it happened as I was strolling in.  I told her it was ok.  It was a timing issue and nothing they could have done differently or better.  She remarked that I was taking his death well.  I told her I was sad, but I was also happy for Pat.  He was no longer suffering in this body; he was no longer forced to listen to the crap that was on the radio (why aren’t there more opera radio stations?); he was no longer forced to watch the Cubs blow it year after year.  He was in that place with God where there was no pain, no suffering, only opera, and where the Cubs always win the World Series.  She laughed.  And then, perhaps, in the next sentence or two she proceeded to give the testimony that we should all want when we face our deaths.  You know, nobody comes here unless death is a real possibility.  Pat knew he was fighting for his life, but, when he was lucid, he had a calm about him that you could feel.  When he was with us he would joke with us, and he would talk to us like he cared about us.  What made Pat like that?

     What made Pat like that?  Would that all of us who claim Jesus as Lord would behave in ways to make others ask of us why we are the way we are!  Pat was graced with that peace that passes all understanding, and others noticed that about him.  Pat was a man who knew his limitations and his faults, and he knew that God loved him anyway!

     I shared a special bond with Pat.  Perhaps some of you might have been surprised to learn that Pat once discerned a call to the priesthood in seminary, as I mentioned earlier.  Pat either made a decision or discerned that he was not called, but it helped us to relate to one another.  His perceived mistreatment by the Roman church, and our obvious call to forgive those who had failed him, also helped to forge that relationship.  But as we walked that particular path together, we were both reminded that God takes stubborn, stupid, selfish, and ridiculous men and women as disciples and turns them into saints.  God does not do this because we deserve it; He does it in spite of what we deserve.  Brothers and sisters, have you considered the testimony of this man who lies before us this day?  I know there are those, perhaps in attendance, who will cluck at an evangelistic bent to any words at a funeral, but one of Pat’s few worries was whether he had been clear enough to you, his family and friends.  Pat was a big believer in St. Francis’ advice that we preach best when we are not using words.  Yet, Pat came to realize that so few of his loved ones, so few of you, seemed publicly to share in his faith.  He had no secret fortune to offer his loved ones.  He had no amazing inventions.  He had nothing the world would call “significant” to offer to you, his loved ones.  He left the world just as he entered it.  And yet, in the line between his life and his death, we witnessed how he lived.  He lived a life where he tried to reflect the love and grace shown him first by our Lord.  How about you?  Do you share a faith like our brother Pat and live a life trying to reflect that faith in your life and work?  Or have you bought into the myth that it is a waste, that there is nothing beyond all this?

     Scoffers in the room might well wonder what good all this faith, all this churchy stuff Pat did.  After all, he did not get out of this life alive.  In the end, none of us do, unless we happen to be among the fortunate to be alive at the return of our Lord.  All of us here today knew Pat’s love for minutiae and knowledge.  Like so many who have come before, Pat sought wisdom in all manner of places.  In the end, he settled on the one person, Jesus Christ, who answered those questions which most bothered him.  If the testimony of those who came before is wrong, then Pat and those of us who share his faith are certainly to be pitied.  Most of us have tried to live our lives serving others as we believed He served and called us.  Those in the world around us have been able to take advantage of us, of people like Pat, who trusted that God would redeem all things in their lives, even their deaths.

     But what if it is all true?  What if those who began what came to be known as the early Church are right?  What if He was raised from the dead?  Then everything Pat has experienced, including his death, has already been redeemed.  Certainly, Pat lived his life as if he believed it was true, and already you have heard how his passing was being redeemed by God.  What of you, his loved ones?  Reflecting upon his life and his testimony to you, what do you believe?  A more difficult question needs to be considered as well.  All of us gathered today knew Pat’s faith.  You may have been surprised that an Episcopal priest celebrated the funeral, but I daresay none of you gathered would be surprised to learn that Pat claimed to be a disciple of the Lord Christ.  What if it were you in this casket?  Would people be surprised to learn that you were a person of faith?  Would people be saying “of course, this makes sense,” or would they rather being saying in surprise, “really?”  I ask for two reasons.  Pat, in conversations before the end, worried whether he had been vocal enough to his loved ones about his faith.  He wondered whether he had imparted the importance of faith in Christ and whether he had provided opportunity for questions.  My other reason for asking is, of course, about the nature of your potential passing.  Pat’s passing was used by God to reach into the life of a loved one of someone else who was in danger of passing.  As we talked that afternoon, I reminded the gentleman that our Lord promises that no one will not have chosen either to receive or to reject Him.  Free will is just that.  We would all be doing Pat a disservice were I not to ask the big questions and demand of you your answers to those questions.  I do not need to hear them.  Only you in your heart needs to hear them.

     Our passage from John this afternoon ought to remind us of the witness of our dear Pat.  I joked a few minutes ago about the ego eimi and Pat’s upraised hand wanting to explain it all to us.  But John’s passage summarizes quickly what Pat had come to believe and wanted to share with you.  The “I” in the passage is emphatic.  It not only points to the person of Jesus specifically, but it excludes the possibilities of others.  Nobody else can offer what Jesus does.  And notice, He does not claim to know information about the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- He claims He is the Way, He is the Truth, and He is the Life.  Only He can show us the way to the Father.  Only He can reveal to us what we need to know about God because He, unlike all who came before and have come since, is one with the Father and so able to speak to the mind and heart of the Father.  If Jesus is who He says He is, He knows the intent of the Father and not just the words.  That is why He can interpret and speak with authority and we and all who hear and see can be amazed at His authority.  Of course, it is easy to make those claims, right?  What doubters and seekers want to know is whether the claims are all true.  That He was not subject, in the end, to the power of death is proof not only that He is the Life, but that He is who He claims to be!  If He were a liar, if He spoke out of turn, if He was not truthful, He would have sinned and died like Pat.  And He would have stayed dead.  But, brothers and sisters, God raised Him from the dead and seated Him in the heavenly places and placed all authority in Him!  For His faithfulness, for His willingness to do the will of the Father, Jesus is honored above all things created.  Disease, nature, supernatural powers -- they all bow before Him!  Pat knew this.  Pat lived this.  Pat died in that knowledge.

     And that same person who claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life also promised that He went to prepare a place for us.  That same person promised that He will not lose a single one given to Him.  That same person, Jesus, promised to share His life with all who believe.  That was His pledge to Pat, and that was His pledge to you.  Believe in Me, and live!  Forever.

     What do you believe?  Is Jesus who He claims to be, whom Pat claimed He was?  Perhaps you worry now that you are the one about whom your beloved Pat was worried.  What can you do?  Pat would be the first to remind us of God’s amazing grace, that all we ever need to do is repent and return.

     In a few moments, after some prayers and greeting, we will share the Eucharist.  I know many of you were raised in the Roman Catholic church.  In the Episcopal tradition, this is the Lord’s Table.  The host is the Lord and we all dine at His invitation.  I also understand that many of you, by reason of conscience will choose not to come forward and receive.  That is fine.  I understand the teaching and people’s efforts to be faithful.  But in many ways we do share an understanding of the Eucharist.  During the celebration of the Eucharist, we will all be called this afternoon specifically to remember what Christ has done for us.  We will break the bread, reminding us of His body broken for us; and we will drink wine, reminding of His blood that was shed on our behalf.  And in that mystical, sacramental moment that we share in the Eucharist, we, like Pat countless times before us, will be reminded of the pledge that Christ has made to each one of us.  We who have died with Christ and to our selves in baptism will be reminded of our promise of new life in Christ, even in a mourning moment such as this.  Truthfully, in that mystical moment, you and I will be sharing in the feast to which our Lord calls of of humanity, that feast at which our dear brother Pat dines with us even on this day.

     The Way, the Truth, and the Life -- Pat lived life and faced death praying that we would all come to believe it and share with Him in God’s eternal priesthood.  Now, in peace, let us pray to the Lord . . .