Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A prayer for disciples . . .

     It would have been a lot of fun preaching from Hosea.  I have to admit, I get a perverse pleasure when people discover passages in Scripture for the first time.  I had a couple “Is this saying what I think it says?” this week.  Yes, life is often tough for the prophets of God.  They are hounded by His kings and queens, they get tossed into cisterns, and they have to marry prostitutes and give horrible names to their children.  Makes you glad you are not a prophet, doesn’t it?  By the way, notice in the midst of this terrible judgment passage, there is still hope?  Though God will deny His people for a time, one day the world will recognize that they are, indeed, His people.  Best of all?  His people will number more than the sands on the seashore.
     That all being said, Luke has been a timely book for us.  We have committed, as a Vestry and as a congregation, to work a bit more on our relationship with God, what people call discipleship.  Two weeks ago, we looked at how Luke described discipleship with respect to how we treat others.  Those who are in a right relationship with God are Good Samaritans to those in their daily life and work.  One cannot claim to be a disciple of and in right relationship with God and be able to walk by others in need.  Last week we explored the simple truth that we all have different calls.  Now, I will be the first to admit that most people tend to focus on the belief that their “job,” their call is more important in God’s eyes.  I think around here we tend to minimize our own ministries relative to others, but the message is the same.  Once baptized into the kingdom of God, you and I and everyone else in the Church is empowered by the Holy Spirit for ministry.  That means we become the hands and feet and mouthpieces and shoulders and whatever else He calls us to be.  None of our ministries are any more or any less significant than that of another, if God is calling us to it!  If He has called us to a ministry, He deems it necessary.
     This week, Luke focuses our attention on how we are to communicate with God.  The prayer is known as the Lord’s Prayer, because our Lord gave it to us, but it is really the Disciples’ Prayer, as it is the prayer which He taught His disciples, that includes you and me, to pray.
     Notice the title of address.  In the Ancient Near East, gods were in another, celestial realm.  A great chasm or gulf existed between them and humanity.  Worse, the gods were jealous of worship and respect.  One proverb illustrated this attitude: Zeus strikes the proud and the haughty like he strikes the tallest oaks.  You probably get the gist.  If one became too important or too full of oneself, Zeus was likely to use his thunderbolt on the haughty human just like he struck the tallest trees in the forest.  Could God be any different?  How does Jesus instruct us to address the Creator of heavens and earth?  Father.  You and I are instructed to call the Maker of all that is, seen and unseen, Father.
     It is a simple title, but think of the meaning.  There is an intimacy that is proclaimed in the titles of mother and father.  Yes, I understand in this day and age, we don’t have a lot of good fathers and even fewer great fathers.  We live in a society which tries to teach us that marriages can be dissolved for irreconcilable differences.  We live in a society which tries to downplay the importance of one parent or another.  It makes sense.  The so called nuclear family of Leave it to Beaver is long gone.  Some of you here raised children by yourselves.  Some of you raised children with a stepparent.  Worse, some here were raised by abusive fathers or emotionally distant fathers.  For some of us, the last image we want to have about our Lord is that of Father.  Yet, as Jesus explains later in the reading, He is the Father in Heaven.  Our Father is the Father who will never fail us, who only wants what He knows is best for us, and who loved us enough to send His Son to save us.  He is the Father who has neither the inclination nor the impotence ever to fail us.  If we men, who are evil, can do good and great by our children, how much better is our Father in heaven?  He is the One to whom we are to pray.
     Next, Jesus reminds us of our Father’s glory.  Hallowed be Thy name.  When we approach our Father, we remind ourselves of who He is, even though we address Him as Father.  He is the One to whom all honor and glory should be rendered.  Nothing and nobody else in our life compares to Him.  He is unique!  He is not our beer buddy.  He is not our co-worker.  Pretend for a moment you are a teenage girl.  How much to you worship Justin Bieber?  We should remember who our Father is each and every time we approach Him and know that, as important as Justin Bieber is to the lives of teenage girls around the world, our Father in heaven is worthy of infinitely more worship and adoration.  If we are dragging ourselves out of bed to worship Him or begrudgingly going to Him in prayer only as a last resort or in desperation, are we truly honoring Him?  Are we truly His disciples?  Our excitement for what He has done for us ought to be even more than those teenage girls who worship Beebs.
     And, speaking of perspective, the next line provides the eternal perspective which you and I should have each time we approach our Father.  Your kingdom come.  You and I are called to remember that we are focusing on things eternal.  We are not called to be overly concerned with things in this life.  Hear me well, Scripture never mocks our suffering.  God knows and feels them all.  But sometimes, a matter of perspective can help us as we struggle through the vicissitudes of life.  We use perspective when dealing with our high school children.  How many of us have heard or have used "I promise, it gets better" in an attempt to change the perspective of one struggling in those years?  That perspective of eternity can also help us to understand better why our Father has denied a request or given us a blessing we did not really request.  We can get so bogged down dealing with the trials of everyday life that we forget the big picture.  We are great at praying for what we think we need, but not so much at praying for what fulfills His plan.  If we approach our Father daily, reminding ourselves of His glory and of His ultimate plan of eternity, we are more easily transformed to see others as He sees them, to hear others as He hears them, and to love others as He loves them.  Then we can become truly effective intercessors.
     Then comes the supplication: give us each day our daily bread.  Certainly, food is one of the most important needs of life.  But the prayer has the sense of idiom as well.  It is almost like praying to God for whatever we will need to see the day through, be it food, patience, strength, sanity, financial means, or whatever else we might need.  Let’s face it, each of us has different needs on different days.  This reminds us that we are sons and daughters trusting our Father in heaven to provide whatever we need.  And the great thing is that His hallowed name reminds us that He alone can give whatever we need.
     Then we get to Luke’s optimistic account of us.  And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive others who sin against us.  Luke’s account sometimes makes me wonder if he is in the same Church as me.  Matthew and Mark say it more like “forgive us as we forgive others,” the implication being that if we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven ourselves.  Luke, on the other hand, assumes we will forgive others.  Most of us around here do eventually forgive, but I would be naive not to think that it is tough sometimes.  Heck, a few of you had to remind me of that need to forgive others as we cleaned up after wrecks here at the four-way stop.  Forgiving others is hard.  Forgiving others is tough.  But, as forgiven sinners ourselves, we understand its importance in our witness to God.  We live in a world which tends to be surprised when one shows mercy.  We live in a world which teaches us that power is the means by which rule is enforced.  God, of course, had another plan.  He confounded the powerful and those who ruled by subjecting Himself for a time.  He could have rightly left us to die in our sinfulness, but He chose to extend the hands of mercy and grace to each one of us.  As His disciples, you and I are called especially to model that behavior in our lives.  Yes, it is tough.  But if we are daily reminding ourselves of our intimate relationship with our Father, if we are daily reminding ourselves of what He has done and has promised to do for us, and if we are daily reminding ourselves of His perspective, how much easier is forgiveness to practice in life!
     It seems a haughty thing, does it not, to think that we can call upon God as Father.  I mean, God is busy with peace in the Middle East, the economy, saving people in natural disasters.  Why should we ever expect Him to hear us, let alone answer us?  It is a question which must have bothered Jesus’ audience as He launches into the teaching of the neighbor and the bread.  Understand, homes in those days were mostly one room buildings.  When it was bedtime, everyone went to bed.  When it was time to get up, everyone got up.  And, given the lack of electricity, such a lifestyle certainly makes sense, especially to us in the Midwest.  Now, if you have ever not wanted to wake a sleeping baby, you understand this parable already.  The neighbor comes and asks for bread.  The neighbor tells him they are in bed and the door is unlocked.  If he gets up and gets the bread and unlocks the door, the children might be wakened!  Still, because the man is shamelessly audacious, the friend will get out of bed, risk waking the children, and give the neighbor the bread.  Does the neighbor act out of friendship or out of recognition that the neighbor is going to wake the kids if he keeps up?  We do not know, nor does it really matter.  Jesus is focusing on the shameless audacity of the request.  Everyone lived in the same manner.  When the friend went next door to get some bread, he knew what the situation was.  Yet, because of the visitor and the obligations of hospitality, he goes ahead and walks to the neighbor’s house to make the request.  He knows he is risking his friendship, and at least payback in the future, and still he makes the request.
     You and I are called to be shamelessly audacious when we request anything of God.   We are not called to be whiners like kids in the back of the car asking “Are we there yet?”  No, He wants us to use the relationship which He has forged to make a difference in our lives and the lives of those whom we encounter.  Presumably, if we are daily conversing with our Father, reminding ourselves of His perspective and the mercy He has shown us in our life, we will ask for those things we really need, like bread for a late visitor, and not nagging!  And, when the time requires, we will be persistent in our request.
     In the last few months, I have had a couple long discussions about the Lord’s Prayer with members of this church and a couple discussions with people in orbit of our parish.  Probably, all the questions raised in those discussions have been addressed in this effort.  But I hope I have also addressed a few questions that went unasked.  As I was reflecting and praying for a sermon this week, I wondered why more had not sought me out about this prayer.  If, as a congregation and Vestry and priest, we have decided intentionally and prayerfully to focus on our relationship with God, why are not more of us working on our prayer life?  He invites us to pray to Him.  He instructs us to think of Him as our Father in heaven.  Why do we not spend more time praying or, if we do not feel we are getting the answers we think we need, why their is a disconnect between us and God?
     I think in that we are not unlike those who first heard this prayer this morning.  Events for the disciples were beginning to get testy.  Luke records this prayer, and this section on discipleship, as the authority of Jesus is growingly questioned by the temple elites and the political leaders.  You and I live in a world which seems to be spinning out of control.  We may no longer be involved in a cold war with Russia, but does anyone think we live in a safer world?  Heck, the Bix organizers designed the finish yesterday with an eye toward the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  We are wealthier than most of the rest of the world, Amanda and Robbie will testify to that truth upon their return from Tanzania, but how many of us feel financially secure?  How many of us are working two jobs?  Working ridiculous hours at one job?  How many of us feel we are one hospital stay away from bankruptcy?  Then add parenting responsibilities.  Those of us with kids learn the dangers of over-scheduling.  Soccer games, girls scouts, boys scouts, play groups, birthday parties, and you can feel in your own events.  In the rush to provide for our children and to make up for time we are not with them, we have this tendency to over-schedule their and our lives.  Anybody here caring for parents?  Anybody here trying to work out a little bit and stay in some semblance of shape?  Anybody here have time to cook?  Anybody here getting enough sleep?
     No doubt I have forgotten a few responsibilities that weigh on you.  But I hope we all get the picture.  The world conspires to exhaust us.  We are often rushing from one part of our lives to another.  Hectic does not even begin to describe our lives.  Yet, how does Jesus teach us to deal with the hectic times of our lives?  Pray.  Go to the Father and ask for what we need.  It seems absolutely crazy.  When life is at its most furious pace, you and I are called to pause and to pray to our Father.  Yet how many of us treat our relationship with God like it is only an hour on Sundays?  When life gets hectic, how many of us buckle down rather than lift our eyes and ears to Him?  And, lest you think this is an impossible demand of God, look at our Lord’s prayer life.  Whenever the demands of life seem to be swirling and threatening to overwhelm Him and His purpose, our Lord retreats to pray, even in the garden in Gethsemane and on the Cross!  And here is the nugget of the Gospel this morning, brothers and sisters: if, while sitting here, the Holy Spirit has convicted you of your need to spend more time in prayer, all you need to do is repent and be intentional in your efforts to talk with God.  Christ died even for all those times we allowed the world to overcome our obligations as His disciples and led us from communing with the Father!
     So, God-lovers, how is your relationship with God?  Most of us have forgotten, but to whom is the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles addressed?  Theophilus.  God-lover.  The questions that we have about our relationship with God are not ours alone.  Throughout the history of God’s people, these questions have been asked.  What does it mean to be in communion with God?  What does it mean to be called His people?  We recognize as His set apart people that there are certain responsibilities.  The Jews would have called it torah.  Luke distills it even more.  Those in right relationship with God serve neighbors like the Good Samaritan did.  Those in right relationship with God have a calling on their life and do not elevate it, or diminish it, with respect to the callings of others in the Body of Christ.  Finally, those in right relationship with God go to Him unceasingly in prayer.  It really is that simple.  So, how is your life as lover of God?  Are you serving others like the Good Samaritan, or are you stalling, trying to figure out who your neighbor is like the man whom Jesus taught?  Are you celebrating the ministries of others and yourself, or are you falling into the trap of creating a hierarchy which demeans the work of others or yourself?  Finally, how would you describe your prayer life?  Are you speaking with your Father regularly, or are you flinching internally when asked that question?  If your relationship truly is what He wants it to be, what is the fruit of your work?  If your answer does not include true intimacy with God, then it is probably time to re-evaluate your life and your relationship with Him.  Forging a relationship with God must be nurtured through time and effort.  He has done the heavy lifting for us, but we must pick up our responsibilities and engage in that relationship as He calls us.  It is challenging.  It is hard.  It involves lots of self-sacrifice, which is contrary to the testimony of the world around us.  But, in the end, only He promises an eternal relationship, a relationship of love and adoration, a relationship worthy of the best Father and the best child!


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Keeping perspective . . .

     The Gospel lesson from Luke this week is remarkably well known.  I say that because the passage is only five verses long, and it is only related to us by Luke.  The other three Gospel writers do not include this scene in their books.  Usually, when people talk about the passage, it is in light of one of two perspectives.  There is the perspective of Martha.  She is dutifully playing the role of hostess, just as her society would have expected.  She complains to Jesus that Mary is not following societal norms, expecting Him to side with her and order Mary to get to work.  There is also the perspective of Mary.  Mary has been afforded the longed-for opportunity to meet the messiah of God.  Rather than fulfill her duties as a hostess, she chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him.  And let’s face it, the most important thing we can do each day, as one of His disciples, is to worship and pray and learn from Him!
     Now, my guess is that a lot of your friends who go to church will hear a sermon on either one of these perspectives or on the “appropriate role of women” in the church.  I won’t waste time on that latter possible sermon because we have far too many women and men who have figured out one of the underlying themes of Jesus’ teaching in this passage.  We live in an age where our church, and some in the wider Church, celebrates that both men and women have roles to play in the building up of the kingdom of God.  I am not naive about the fact that the role of women is limited in some denominational expressions of our faith, but my job is not to exhort or to afflict or to comfort them.  It is my job to encourage, to afflict, and to comfort you, however.
     The low hanging fruit of that affliction side of preaching would have been the perspective of Mary.  Mary sets a wonderful example for us that the worship and learning from the Lord is our most important duty as Christians.  If anything else holds priority in our lives instead of God, then we are, indeed, falling short in our Christian duty.  But such a sermon would have been literally preaching to the choir.  Most of us gathered here this morning understand that call and its proper priority in our lives.  How do I know?  We are celebrating a combined Rite One service this week with no music.  Is there anything less appealing to the normal 10:15am crowd?  But why do I say most?  It is entirely possible that one or two of us just stumbled in here or just got dragged here by a loved one.  It is possible that one or two of us have lost our motivation or joy to worship God.  It is entirely possible that one or two of us have given other parts of our life priority over God.  And if we have, we need to repent and get our priority straight.
     But for those of us here, I felt a bit more called to talk of another part of this passage and some of the preaching that flows from it.  The passage occurs in Luke as Luke is teaching us about discipleship.  We just read about how our relationship with God through Christ ought to inform our relationships with others, especially our neighbors.  Now we get this section.  Next week, at least I hope so but confess I did not read ahead, we will learn how to we are to converse with our Father in heaven.  Discipleship is presented in these three settings as a bit of a balancing act.  Our relationship with God must be our priority, but from that relationship flows our willingness and effectiveness in serving others in His name and our confidence to entreat Him to listen to us as we make intercessions.  Notice how Jesus does not condemn Martha for her ministry of hospitality.  Jesus does not say that her service is unimportant.  He does gently chide her that Mary has chose the better part, but that does not make her part bad, only less good.  The fact is a lot of our ministry can be a difficult experience in prioritization.  Although we are being transformed to see as He would have us see, to hear as He would have us hear, and to love as He would have us love, we are not yet entirely the new creation that we will one day be.  We still sin and we still make mistakes when we try and discern His will for our lives.  The trick is trying to figure out when we are wrong and need to re-prioritize and when we are correct.  The hard part is our efforts not to judge the ministries of others or ourselves as being significant or a waste.
     What do I mean by that?  An easy example that fits today’s reading will be our upcoming celebration of the lives of Bob & Mary Lea.  Most of us will gather in hear to thank God for the being the Good Shepherd who leads us through the valley of death to His presence.  We will remind ourselves of His promises both in the readings for that day and in the songs that we sing.  Most of us will still mourn their passing, especially their family and close friends, but most of us will be comforted by the Holy Spirit in the fact that we can sing an alleluia at their grave, knowing that one day we will be re-united with them for all eternity.
     Yet in the midst of that service, some will have other duties and ministries.  Some will  have been worried about the altar and the service itself.  Their efforts will result, hopefully, in us meeting God and being comforted in His presence.  Still others will have been about the business of hospitality, setting the tables and warming the food for the reception afterwards.  Whose ministry is most important?  Clearly, those who help make it possible for others to be reminded of God’s presence in their loss.  Whose ministry is good?  They all are.  Combined together, we hope that such an event affords us an opportunity to grieve their passing, to reflect on our own future passing, and to be reminded of His promises to all who call upon His name.  Given that ultimate goal, is the ministry of all the “Martha’s” in our midst any less significant that the ministries of the “Mary’s” in our life together?  Of course not.  So long as each is called to the task which he or she has chosen, all are important, all are significant, and all are blessed by God.  Buried in this short story of only five verses is an example of the Church, the Body of Christ, functioning well.  Martha’s hospitality makes it possible for the other disciples to soak up the teaching of the Lord Christ.  Her only fault is assuming that Mary’s choice was somehow wrong.
     I have come to recognize in my seven years here that we often emulate that fault.  We emulate that fault, however, in the estimation or valuation of our own ministries rather than that of the others in our lives.  What do I mean?  If I had a dollar for every time one of you said to me “I just ________”.  Many of you around here are amazing to me at how little you value your ministries.  I just give faithfully, Father; I don’t really engage in ministry.  I just pray, Father; I don’t really do much ministry.  I just (fill in your blank).  We are absolute professionals when it comes to disparaging our own ministries compared to others.
     A great example is the Community Meal.  For 47 years, you as a congregation have been committed to feeding the homeless and hobos and hungry in our community a sit down meal.  Each month, the coordinators choose a meal or a theme and then recruit people to make it happen.  Most months there are at least three entrees, a couple vegetables, a couple other items, dessert, bread, and drink.  If that’s all we had to do, that is about a dozen contributors.  But we also serve.  We need people to spoon out the food and people to pour the drinks.  Oops.  Now we are up to about 20 people contributing to the ministry.  Ooops.  Wait!  We forgot that not all of us are blessed with the resources to make the extra food required, and we forgot that not everybody has the time to prepare an extra item during the busy work week.  That’s right, some people contribute funds.  Those funds are used to buy stuff for others to cook or others to serve, like chocolate milk.  This is a very simple ministry in one sense.  We are feeding the hungry.  But whose ministry is the most important?  Mine?  Who would come and think to ask me whatever questions about God they might have were we not feeding them?  Is it the the servers’?  If there was nothing prepared, what would they serve?  The coordinators?  If we did not contribute funds, prepare the food, buy the drinks, and serve the food & drinks, would their coordination mean anything?  You get the picture?  Even something as silly as the fluff each month is of incredible worth to those who are eating.  Pauline is great at making fun of that “easy to do” dessert.  Can I tell you how many oohs and ahhs I have heard over the years thankful for the dessert that “mom used to make” or “grandma used to make.”  To Pauline it might not be a big deal.  To the one enjoying the food, it might remind them of sown seeds in their life, of one who may have loved them dearly, providing me or others who serve drinks an opportunity to remind them of God’s love for them as well.
     Discipleship, good discipleship, is very much like that meal at its very best.  Without each person doing their part, the meal is diminished.  True, the hungry will appreciate whatever we do, but we know better.  We know what God has called us to do.  We know that the meal we provide is meant to be the barest, absolute almost shadowiest reflection of the feast hosted by our Lord.  The same is true of all our ministries.  Nearly everything that we undertake in His name involves the Body working together.  Nearly everything we undertake in His name involves the Body picking up various tasks and doing them to the best of everyone’s ability.  And that brings us back to our passage.  Martha was spending time worried about what Mary was doing.  How often do we do that ourselves?  How often do we waste time evaluating the ministry of others or of ourselves relative to that of others?  How much more effective could we be, could this body of believers at St. Alban’s be if we spent more time prioritizing God in our lives and discerning our walk with Him in prayer and conversation?  We do amazing ministry, to be sure, but how much more amazing could our ministries be if we took the individual responsibility of prioritizing God in our lives and prayerfully evaluating His call on each of our lives?  How many more people would be drawn into that right relationship with God through Christ if we modeled the behavior He teaches in this passage?  And how many more Martha’s and Mary’s would feel like their efforts and ministries had meaning?
     So, what if you have experienced that spiritual wedgie this morning?  What if you know realize that part of this reading was for you?  What do you do?  As always, the solution is simple.  Confess your sins and ask God for the grace to hear His call on your life.  He died even for these sins.  If you have been a Martha, repent and give thanks to and for the Mary’s in your life.  If you are a Mary but have taken the Martha’s in your life for granted, repent and give thanks to and for the Martha’s who have made your ministry possible.  And, just as importantly, ask God for the grace to keep Him as the priority in your life.  The more you are able to focus your life on Him, the greater your impact will be on the lives of others and the more fulfilled you will be.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Grace in the life of a wanderer . . . .

     I got one of those calls that comes more than clergy like but probably not nearly as much as we should wish they did.  It was one of the local hospitals calling on behalf of a patient that is a member of “my church.”  I checked around with some of the matriarchs and patriarchs.  Nobody knew who she was.  Then I checked in with AA.  Nobody recognized her name.  I even asked my past and present food ministry coordinators.  Nobody knew the name.  So, I headed to the hospital blind about the patient that had requested that I come.

     I arrived in her room to find “Mary” sitting in her chair.  She was a bit surprised to see me.  “Are you really a priest?”  When I answered “That’s what people tell me.”  She chuckled and said that she had never seen a priest in a green shirt.  It ended up being a good ice breaker.  I explained that I try to wear the liturgical color of the day and wear black only during Lent.  “Does it match the altar coverings and the veil and burse?”  I knew I had a member of an altar guild in the room with me.  “No,” I responded,  but maybe some day.”  She proceeded to tell me about her home parish and asked me about St. Alban's.

     After the chitchat, I asked Mary what she needed.  She responded that life had gotten tough.  She had fallen a few times too many.  People wanted her in a nursing home, but she wanted to stay with her daughter.  That, of course, was causing a fight.  Her daughter was a good daughter, but sometimes she did not act like herself.  I shared that being a child caregiver was a big, stressful responsibility.  Some can do it, but many can’t.  Mary expressed pretty typical generational sentiments about assisted living and nursing care.  I pointed out that much had changed, that there were really good ones in most communities.  She asked if I knew any good ones in our area, and I shared their names.

     We reached a lull in our conversation as she committed the names to memory so I asked her why she’d had the hospital call me.  She shared that her priests had taught her since she was a youngster that one of the great things about being an Episcopalian is that, wherever you go in life or the world, you are probably close to people who will take you in like one of their own.  I gathered that she was not affiliated with St. Alban’s.  I asked the name of her parish.  She gave me the name, town, and state.  I asked what brought her out here to the midwest.  She replied “Marriage.  I married a guy from out here.”  “Recently?” I asked.  “No, in 1948.”

     “Yep.  I’m one of those.”  “Those?” I asked.  “Yep, I’m one of those who got busy in life and sort of got away from God.  Truth to tell, I sort of expected you not to show up and kind of hoped you would not.”  So I asked why.  “It seems sort of selfish to expect a priest to show up after however many years.”  I asked if anything else was going on with her other than the falls, the family fights, and the fear of assisted living.  “You mean like death?” she asked.  I nodded.  “No,” she responded, “life has just gotten to be a real burden.  I remember a sermon or Sunday School lesson where we were told to throw our cares on God, especially when they got too big for us.  It stuck with me I guess.”  She laughed a bit ruefully and admitted, "I guess that's where I am in life."  So  I asked “How can we pray for you?”  Mary wanted healing prayers, prayers for her daughter and her, and she wanted discernment about what to do and where to go.  “If it is not too much trouble,” she added.

     I offered communion.  “No,” she stated firmly while shaking her head, “I do not deserve communion.  I have been away from God for  . . . for  . . . for so long I can’t do the math in my head any more.”  I supplied the 65 years.  “Exactly,” she answered, “far too long to deserve communion.”  So I asked, “Do you think we are supposed to wait until we deserve communion to receive it?”  I thought my tone implied a negative answer.  I was wrong.  “Absolutely,” she assented.  “Mary, if you wait until you deserve communion, you will never get to receive it.  If you have to wait until I deserve it, no one is ever going to get to receive it.  It is an act of grace and mercy.”  She disagreed.  In her economy, one needed to be going to church regularly and paying the church to receive communion.  Ah, works righteousness yet again.  “Mary, all you need to do is repent of your sins and of your efforts to dodge Him or allow yourself to be led astray from Him for these last 65 years.”  “It has to be harder than that.  What you describe just wouldn’t be fair,” was her retort.  “Fair?” I asked.  “Who wants fair?  If God treated us fairly, we’d have big problems.  As for me, I’ll stick to grace.”  “No, you don’t understand, Father.  If everybody felt entitled to receive communion, it wouldn’t be as special.”  “Special?” I asked.  “Special?  Could you imagine a world where everyone came to the altar knowing, knowing what God had wrought in the death and resurrection of His Son?  Why, it would be glorious!  The whole world would be worshipping and thanking God!  That’s a vision worth imagining.”  “No, no, you miss what I am saying.” she continued.  “We need to do things the way He wants to deserve to receive communion.”

     “Mary, in your absence, you have forgotten the true meaning of grace and of the Eucharist.”  “What do you mean?” she asked.  “Why do you think I came today?”  “You had to,” she chuckled.  “Really?” I asked.  She nodded a bit.  “Are you sure?” I pressed a bit.  She thought and then said, “Well, you had to because my priests said you would.”  “Do you really think I came this afternoon because some priests 65, 70, 80 years ago said I would?  I don’t even know their names.  I bet big money they are dead.  Why would I feel bound by their promises?”  She thought for a second and said, “but that has to be it.  You had to.”  I chuckled with her and reminded her that she was not a part of my flock, nobody on my Vestry was going to get on my case for not coming, and that I was probably safe in assuming that she would not have called my bishop had I blown her off in need.  She thought about that for a minute or two and then asked, “Then why did you come?”

     “Mary, that’s my calling.  I am supposed to be a herald of grace.  We all are, but clergy especially.  That’s what your priests were telling back when you were young.  It wasn’t that anyone had to try and help.  It was that others would try and help you in thanksgiving to God for what He had done for them.  How would you have felt had I not visited or came in and said something along the lines of ‘Mary, I would love to pray with and for you and to give you communion.  Unfortunately, I can’t do that until you have joined my church/tithed to my church/worshipped my church/or sone whatever you think you need to do to be able to earn God’s forgiveness.’  How would that have made you feel?”  “Probably a mixture of mad and sad and a bit deserving.  I can tell you this, though, I would never have called a priest ever again.”  Exactly, I thought.  She continued, “Wow.  I guess I never really thought about it.  I kinda thought communion was our reward for doing right by God.”  “Mary, did you ever go through a Confirmation class?”  She laughed, “You know I did, but we called it First Communion back then.”  “Ah, that might be our problem, that and that you have been away so long.”

     “What did they teach you about communion?”  She thought and thought.  “It’s been a long time, Father. . . .”  Words like pledge and memorial and sacrament stuck in her mind, but they were a jumble.  So we did a bit of a refresher course about the Eucharist.  The lightbulb moment was, of course, when we got to the sacrament.  She had not learned the “outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace” in her classes, but she had heard it many times.  As she mouthed it a few times, it dawned her.  She started chuckling and pausing and laughing and pausing.  “I have heard that lots.  How could I forget it?”  “Mary, “ I responded, “you have been wandering apart for 65 years.  Part of why we celebrate the Eucharist is to remind ourselves of His promises and of His ultimate act of grace.  It’s like your arm, what would happen if you did not use it for 65 years?”  “It would probably fall off or disappear, “ she answered, “If I wouldn’t use it, I would lose it.”  Then panic.  “Father, how do I know I haven’t lost His promise?”  “Mary, who do you think made you remember those lessons from 65, 70, 80 years ago and caused you to call me?”  “Whoa!”  Whoa was right.

     I would love to say she took communion.  I would love to say that we prayed, she took communion, and her injuries from the most recent fall were healed.  That would have been the happy ending I would write.  She did ask for my prayers and asked God to forgive her for wandering for 65 years.  She asked if I was absolutely sure He would forgive her.  I asked if she remembered the story of the Prodigal Son.  As she shook her head yes, I replied, “Welcome home, prodigal daughter.  Dad is happy you came home.”  I sat with her as she cried about the things that weighed on her.  As she composed herself, I offered the bread and wine one more time.  “No, I need some time to think about all this.  I know why you came now.  But I need some time to figure it all out, you know?”  I did.  “Besides, maybe my first communion in 65 years needs to be with people in church.  Am I making any sense.”  I replied, “Of course.  And I’ll be back in case you change your mind.”  “Green shirt and all?” she teased.  “At least until Monday . . . Peace be with you.”  “And also with you, Father.  And Father?”  “Yes,” as I stood in the door.  “Thanks for taking that call from the hospital.  I’m not sure what I wanted when I had them call you, but I am so glad we met.  It’s almost like you were in my classes and my church back then.”  “Mary, it’s almost like that because He was.”  


Monday, July 15, 2013

Now that our wounds have been healed, how do we help others . . .

            Sometimes, we just have to marvel at the timing.  The readings were assigned by a lectionary committee many years ago, Nicole chose the music on Monday, a 517 day ordeal in a town in Florida has come to an end, and we just got lucky that today was a Healing Sunday.  I speak, of course, as one who tries to be faithful and preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper (maybe nowadays that should be internet) in the other.  I recognize that the verdict last night has stirred lots of passions.  The usual suspects are grandstanding.  The winning lawyers are crying that justice was done, the losing lawyers are crying that the justice was denied because of race or other factors, those who make their money off such tragedies are out, or promising to be out, in force, and others are tweeting or facebooking their responses to the world.  A young boy is dead.  A man is now public enemy number one in many quarters.  I would expect that the workplace on Monday will be full of a number of conversations.  I expect, if you are known as a Christian in your circle of friends or coworkers, you will be asked what you think, about where God is in this midst, or any other number of such questions.  For those of us in the QCA, it may seem distant.  On the one hand, we do not seem to have much racial tension around here.  And when people try and stir up those tensions, I have firsthand experiences of how our judges work to diffuse those.  But in other parts of the country, those tensions may just lie a bit below the surface.

     Make no mistake, I do think things are changing with respect to race in this country.  Our current President is proof that race is not the cavernous divide it once was, though we would be na├»ve to think that no one hates him because he is black.  Part of the reason the cavern has narrowed, I think, it is driven by the fact that our melting pot is getting bigger and bigger.  But, given each ethnic group’s efforts to define themselves as something other than American, or maybe to try to retain a bit of heritage, we always run the risk of racial explosions because, in a real sense, we are no longer just Americans in some parts of the country.  In some places, we would call ourselves “Mexican-Americans”, “African-Americans”, “Asian-Americans”, and so on.  In some sense, I think parts of the country have forgotten what we stood for.  All of us, whether we are members of the DAR or even the Mayflower families, are Eurotrash or some other such undesirables.  We laugh, but it is true.  Except for the native Americans (there we go again) among us, all our ancestors immigrated to this country from another place seeking economic opportunity or religious freedom or the chance to start over.  I wonder if our politicians in DC ever give any thought to that ancestor in their family tree who took that first leap.  I doubt most do because I believe our fights about immigration would have more empathy and less name calling, but that is another subject.  But in other parts of the country, there is very little effort to melt people in the pot together.  Think back to the beginning of this case.  Zimmerman was called a white Hispanic, whatever that means, and Martin was a black youth.  Then came all the character assassinations, depending on who had the bully pulpit when.  Neither the families nor the community had any chance to mourn the tragedy.  Neither the families nor the communities had the opportunity to reflect on the tragedy and to see if systemic issues played a part.  The battle lines were drawn early by people from outside the community, and the leaders wanted us to choose sides.  Is this the best we can do?  Have we truly come to this?

     The questions began hitting me during trivia last night.  The verdict was announced, and social media began to light up about it.  Predictably, I had friends on both sides of those battle lines.  Some were glad that Zimmerman had been found not guilty because they shared his concerns about their own neighborhoods and their own communities.  For them, this trial had become less about the tragedy of a boy being killed and a man losing his freedom in another way, and more about a trail of the so called “stand your ground” laws, never mind that Mr. Zimmerman’s attorneys never used that Florida law to justify his actions.  On the other side, my black friends wondered aloud whether their son or daughter would be next.  Some of these men and women I have known for more than three decades.  They would fit in well among us.  They work hard.  They cherish their families.  If you pay attention to my facebook feed, a couple of them make me look light in the sarcasm department.  They saw in the jury’s acquittal the re-valuation of their children.  By that, I mean, they genuinely worry that if their kids, on the way to the local 7-11 to get a Big Gulp, passes through the wrong neighborhood, they might be killed and the perpetrator go unpunished just because the kids “looked suspicious” in the eyes of someone else.  It used to be they had to worry about other neighborhoods or specific people.  Before tonight I worried about my kid/s running afoul of gangs and drug dealers.  Now? . . . Are they ever safe?  Is their world going to be any different than my parents’?  You can imagine the questions.  What if it was your son or daughter whom we had buried under these circumstances some months ago?  What would be your thoughts?  What would be your cry to God?

     Thankfully, all of today’s liturgy reminds us of our hope and of our calling.  It also reminds us how the world needs to hear the Gospel.  Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear thy voice, O Son of Man.  In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds dark with fears, from paths where hide the lures of greed, we catch the vision of thy tears.  Did I mention Nicole chose these words before this morning?  Better still, Luke’s words today are of the Good Samaritan.  It is a parable which we all know, as does much of the world.  Like the Prodigal Son, it is a parable which is known by those outside the Christian community.  But also like the Prodigal Son, it is a parable with different perspectives.  Finding yourself at the water cooler this week and being asked about the verdict and its aftermath and what you think, you can point to the Good Samaritan, and everyone will know what they think you mean.  We should always be showing mercy.  Certainly, that is true and one of those perspectives.  It is the perspective of one who sits outside the story and judges the behavior of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.  But, have you ever considered the story from the victim’s perspective or from the perspective of the disciples?

     Think back over the last few weeks.  Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem.  He knows how this journey will end; yet He has determined to see it through to the end.  He has sent His disciples ahead of Him into Samaria to announce that the Kingdom of God has come near through healings and other works of power.  You remember Samaria.  Samaria was scorned by Israel because the Samaritans did not keep the torah.  Though God forbade that they marry other peoples, those in Samaria married outside the Jewish faith.  Put in modern language, they were mutts and half-breeds.  They were scorned by “true” Jews.  And yet Jesus sends His disciples into their villages to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed.  And how do the Samaritans respond?  They are mad because they can see that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem.  Many refuse to welcome Him.  Salvation has come this close, and they have rejected Him.  It is tragic.  It is also infuriating to some of the disciples.  They ask Jesus if they should call down fire.  These men, who have just been ministering to the sick and the possessed among the lost now want to call down fire and destroy them!  It would be like us calling down fire on places where slaves are kept, destroying them for not seeking the freedom offered.  Jesus rightly rebukes His disciples and reminds them that judgment is His and that there will be an eventual consequence to their rejection of God’s messiah.

     And now.  A lawyer seeks to demonstrate that he is deserving of God’s mercy.  He asks Jesus about eternal life and wants the rabbi to tell him that he is a good man, deserving of God’s grace.  And Jesus tells the parable.  The presumably faithful priest and Levite pass by the man; it is the Samaritan who nurses his wounds and carries him to the inn.  Can you imagine the shock to the disciples?  Wait, many of them rejected You, Lord?  They can’t be the good guys in the story!  How will we know those who belong to the Kingdom of God?  By their willingness to show mercy.  The Samaritan goes to great lengths to show mercy.  He spends a couple days’ wages, he gives up his oil and wine, and he sacrifices time as well a potentially safety (what if the robbers are still in the neighborhood).  He also reminds us that the Kingdom is often spread one person at a time.  Have villages in Samaria rejected Jesus.  Absolutely!  Has everybody in Samaria rejected Him and His message?  Clearly not!  Whether it was the man’s study of the torah or the testimony of the disciples or something else we are not told, the Samaritan man has a true grasp of the Gospel.  How do we know?  Because he lives it!

     What of the perspective of the victim in our story?  Have you ever considered the absolute reality that he represents each one of us?  How many of us here are completely comfortable with the idea that our salvation is utterly dependent upon grace?  How many of us are completely unlike the lawyer in the story and perfectly fine with not trying to justify ourselves to one another or to God?  Remember, He knows our hearts!  How many of us rejected the Gospel the first time we heard it?  The second?  The twentieth? The hundredth?  Even when we did not recognize that we were dead and wounded, lying helpless along the side of the road as we tried to make our own journeys, the Lord continued to care for us.  He provided food, He provided rest, He provided those in our life who testified to us of His love and grace, and He bore the cost of us being nursed back to health on that Cross He has set His face toward in our story today.  In short, He brought us true healing!  And like us before we found that He was seeking to restore us, He is seeking everyone we meet.  Whether they know it or not, whether they accept the ultimate consequences of their rejection today or not, everyone we meet is just like we were, in need of healing, in need of being raised up.

     It is from that perspective, brothers and sisters, that you and I are privileged to speak into messes like that town in Florida finds itself.  You and I, by privilege and by responsibility of that loving Hand that reached down to pluck us from certain eternal death and punishment, are called to be heralds that His kingdom has come and is coming near.  Can we understand Mr. Zimmerman’s frustration if robberies were really that prevalent?  Sure.  But does that mean we need to be arming ourselves to protect stuff?  Some may choose to arm themselves, but in the grand scheme is that a disciple’s required response?  Or should we not remind ourselves and others that we are to rejoice that our name is written in the book of heaven and not in the collection of toys that will pass away were He to return right now?  Can we even understand the desire to be a hero, if that was the motivation behind Mr. Zimmerman getting out of the car after the dispatcher said “don’t”?  Assuredly.  But we are also a people called to remember that the real job of Savior has been filled!  We don’t really need another hero because He has come near, lifted us up, and redeemed us.  And can we understand the instinct, if one is being attacked, to fight back with deadly force?  Absolutely.  But we are also a people who follows a Lord who told us that the greater love is to lay down one’s life for a friend and then modeled that behavior on our behalf, thereby demonstrating His power and authority even over death itself.  You and I can face situations which could lead ultimately to our deaths with a hope and confidence at which the world can only shake its head.  I do not believe our Lord calls people to risk death unnecessarily or without being aware of the cost.  Even our Lord asked in the garden that the cup be passed.  But I do believe that when the lives of His people are taken from them, He will raise them up.  He has promised and He has demonstrated the power to accomplish even that!

     And what message do we have for those who find themselves under suspicion, like the young Mr. Martin that fateful evening?  Well, if each of us is trying to live a godly life, we have probably found ourselves under suspicion more than once.  Those who face life’s problems or death with a hope and a confidence are sometimes thought to be crazy; at other times, they are thought to be religious nuts.  In any event, all of us have found ourselves on the outside of “normal” and of “acceptance.”  How do we respond?  Do we call upon God to rain down fire on those who reject us?  Or do we remember the One we serve and the fact that it is Him being rejected, not us?  Do we turn the other cheek, trusting vengeance is His, or do we take matters into our own hands?

     And hear me well, brothers and sisters, these are difficult situations and difficult questions.  It is precisely for situations like this that our Lord came down from heaven and walked among us.  I cannot condemn young Mr. Martin because I do not know what was in his heart.  I cannot condemn Mr. Zimmerman because I do not know his heart or what was in it.  Only our Lord does.  And in the end, He will see that justice is done.  If either loved or loves Him, He will vindicate them.  In fact, it is entirely conceivable to envision a possibility in which our Lord raises both to the same eternal feast, showing them the wounds that He bore for their hurt, their anger, their fear, their pride, their sin, their loneliness or whatever else that may have precipitated these events, are marked as clearly on His body as those marks of the nails and spear.  Such is His love, such is His grace, and such is His power.  I will leave the judgment and condemnation to Him because He makes no mistakes, and He saved me when I deserved such condemnation.

     Of course, our task is not yet done.  In the midst of this, two families are afflicted by tragedy.  In the case of the Martin family, the tragedy is that of a lost potentially innocent life.  In the case of the Zimmerman family, the tragedy is the likelihood that he will be hounded all of his remaining years for what may have been a perceived life-threatening situation.  We can certainly pray for them, but can we do more?  Can we identify and learn from any systemic mistakes?  Society must begin to examine the events of that night and address those issues which contributed to these events, and you and I can speak into those discussions.  Some of these will be hard questions.  Some of the questions will seem to have no good answers, just less evil ones.  Are “stand your ground laws” appropriate?  Should there be a requirement that we listen to dispatchers?  Do neighborhood watch people need different training or require more supervision?  Does their volunteerism require greater responsibility?  Did our legal system work?  Were there efforts, successful or not, to pervert what we think of as justice in the American system?  How do we ensure the integrity of our system of justice?  Do we need outsiders supervising certain cases?  Were some outsiders just self-aggrandizing?  And, though it remains unsaid in many places, why is one death more acceptable than others?  Worse, why do we not get worked up, wring our hands, and watch closely every death and subsequent trial in our beloved country?  I was asked if it was true that 11,106 African American men had been killed by other African Americans since young Mr. Martin tragically died--he as referring to a website posting.  I had no idea and was dreading the response, knowing, absolutely knowing it was race-baiting.  Where were your pastors for those men?  Needless to say, that was not the response I expected, nor was it not a powerless criticism.  A self-professed unchurched wondering where our leaders were in the face of other deaths . . . black church leaders as white ones who were no wringing their hands about injustice on facebook had said nothing, absolutelynothing about the deaths 11,000 black men, plus how many white, Asian, hispanic, or women in the last 18months.  Why? If we truly believe in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, should not the taking of every life be a national tragedy?  We know, we who claim Him as Lord know that our Lord values every single human life; should not we as His appointed leaders?  And, even though we live at some distance from these tragic events, part of our responsibility is to speak into those laws or attitudes which could lead to a similar tragedy in our area.  Whether our neighbors know it or not, we need to be speaking into those systems and those attitudes which make this replicable in our own neighborhoods, even if such speaking and proposing and voting causes us to because outcasts yet again.  Neither the discernment nor the fight will be easy, but you and I have been prepared for difficult tasks!  You are the little church that called the community to feed the hungry a sit down meal 47 years ago!  You are the community that began fighting a $32 Billion industry when you did not truly believe it existed.  You are the community that has intentionally called the wider world to God’s healing grace each and every month for nearly 52 years!  You can certainly speak, with God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s wisdom, into this mess when asked!

     Brothers and sisters, every week you are a sent people.  Each and every week I remind you that you are sent as heralds of His grace and love and mercy.  This week, you are given the advantage of knowing the likely area of service you will be offering.  Like the Samaritan travelling the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, you know the likely route and some of the potholes.  Pray that the Lord creates in you the heart, not of the priest or the Levite in our parable this morning, but of the Samaritan, the outcast who modeled Christ before He knew the full extent and power of Christ, and gives you the love of mercy in your heart that you will see and hear the wounded and dying along your paths and speak His life-giving power into their lives!  You may not have the answer to all their questions, but you certainly know the way to the One who does!



Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my . . . where?

     It is, as you all know, always dangerous to give me a couple days to read.  I so seldom get to do the sermon preparation I want to do.  But, as events and the calendar would have it, thanks to the fourth falling on a Thursday, I had three full days of relaxation and reading.  Now, I confessed to Jane and Connie and Pauline & Don and others around the table that I was still undecided about my sermon for this morning just before church.  Our readings and the commentaries gave me ideas for at least a half dozen sermons.  The key was figuring out which one most appropriate for us at this time.  Truthfully, I had a hard time deciding.  Yesterday, though, as I was trying to figure out which sermon to offer, I heard about Pope Francis’ lecture to seminarians and novitiates, men and women seeking to become monks and nuns.  Now, the press was, admittedly, going nuts over his attempts to circumvent the Vatican establishment and his call that they live more mundane lives sans Mercedes and cell phones and his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank, but I was drawn more to what he had to say to those considering a calling to the religious life.
     The pope asked all the students about their joy.  It seemed a simple question.  But the pope seemingly caught on to the idea that a number of those exploring a vocation in the Roman Catholic Church were lacking joy.  I was reminded in his question of that scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the renewed Spock is studying and asked by the Vulcan computer “How do you feel?”  Spock has been answering scientific and literary and other cross-cultural and cross-planetary questions quick as a wink, but when posed by that simple question, he is stumped.  It takes Amanda, Spock's mother, to explain the nature of the question.  The same seems to have been true for some in the pope’s audience.  They studied hard, they performed their given tasks with determination and skill, but he wondered aloud at whether they were happy doing what they felt called to do.  He even told those in attendance that if they noticed a lack of joy in the presence of those with whom they were working and studying, they should speak up.  The work that they are called to do is often exhausting and seemingly never-ending, but they need to remember the One calling is not just anyone.  He is the Lord Christ!  He is the One who promises abundant life for all eternity!  He is the One who ought to inspire us to sing praises to His name and to recount the amazing works He has done, as our Psalmist reminds us this morning.
     Naturally, the Pope’s question got me thinking.  He intended the question for those pursuing religious orders or ordained lived in the Church.  But why should we limit it there?  Yes, I understand that the ordained serve an important role in the Church.  But we have been reminding ourselves the last few weeks that we each have unique and important callings.  Our Lord calls us and tasks us according to His will.  We are, as we often remind ourselves, a sent people.  We are sent back into the world to witness His saving grace in our lives and the hope that He gives us.  How many of us do that with joy?  How many of us approach our callings with excitement and thrill that the God of the universe has chosen us, us with all our faults and all our potential for messing up His wonderful plan, for the work of spreading His kingdom?
     The fact is we can get so caught up in the business of the Church that we forget the purpose of the Church.  Think about the work that we do around here.  This week alone, there will be 25-30 of us involved in feeding the homeless at the Community Meal, several of us will be engaged in the effort to rid the area of slavery, 11 of us will gather around a meeting at the Vestry and discuss both the mission and secular measures of the parish, Larry will venture to the jail to minister in our name, a dozen or so will be committed this week to intercessory prayers on behalf of us and those who come to us, some of us will travel to Muscatine to listen to the bishop, a few of us will be working on the fall’s Underwear drive, Nicole will be choosing music for the upcoming Healing Service, and Robin will be tasked with getting the Bulletin and Orders or Worship out.  All of this is occurring during the lazy summer days of Episcopal vacation.
     Think of how easy it would be for us to get consumed by our work.  Those organizing  the Community Meal could easily be stressed by the job of finding preparers and servers for Wednesday night or planning a meal or guessing at the number of those whom we will serve.  The Vestry could easily get bogged down in budgets or marketing.  Robin and Nicole could easily forget the purpose of their work and get stressed out by deadlines or too many choices or other items.  Heck, you could be “put out of sorts” by the combined services of July.  There is every chance for us to be distracted by the minutiae of our ministry and forget both the purpose of our ministries and the One who calls us.  And when churches become distracted by the minutiae, what happens?  They become places that are overly concerned with budgets and pledges, places that are overwhelmed by the needs they address and the people they serve, organizations which forget that they are the Bride of Christ.  Ever been to a joyless wedding?  Why would a joyless church ever expect people to want to come and worship with them?
     The 70 in Luke’s Gospel today get distracted by some of their work in a different way, but they are distracted nonetheless.  They are amazed at the power with which they have been bestowed and the results of its use.  They return from their work to the Master excited that they have healed the sick and cast out demons.  Jesus refocuses them on what ought to be the source of joy in their lives.  Do not be excited that you have healed or cast out demons; rather, be excited that your names are written in the book of heaven.  Were the ministries of the sent real?  Of course.  Were they meaningful?  You bet, especially to the ones who received the blessings of the One who sent them.  But were those miracles meant to be their focus?  Absolutely not!  They were meant to be excited that they had been found by the Lord and commissioned for His work.  Put differently, the miracles they performed on behalf of the Lord pale by comparison to what our Lord has planned for them and for us throughout eternity!  That should be their and our focus.
     So how do we know that our focus is correct?  Perhaps sitting here this morning, the Holy Spirit has convicted some among us that we have lost our joy.  Perhaps you remember yourself grumbling among those outside the parish about coming to church this weekend to worship God.  Maybe you made some comments about fulfilling one of your ministries which those outside this church might interpret as resentful.  Maybe you were like the 70 this morning and so focused on a miraculous healing that those not yet a part of the kingdom believe that you are more thankful for the exercise of power than the gift of God’s grace.  How do we refocus?  All it takes is a bit of repentance and reorientation.
     Psalm 66 serves as a wonderful reminder of both our focus and God’s willingness to use us to each out among the world, even when we feel we do not deserve such an honor, and the accompanying emotion that should surround His willingness to bind Himself to us and us to Him.  The psalm begins with a reminder that our primary responsibility is glorify God.  We know this, but sometimes we forget, that all our works, words, efforts, thoughts, and even how we treat one another is meant to glorify God.  That is the ultimate fulfillment of being made in His image and His likeness.  But how do we glorify Him?  Gods in the ANE were worshipped and glorified by sacrifices.  We know that God wants a contrite heart far more than any sacrifices.  The psalmist reminds us that we are to speak of His amazing deeds and of how He helped us during times of suffering or blessed us in times of abundance.  This is done either corporately, as an entire body, or individually.  Think on that call for just a second.  The world is supposed to see, through our witness, that the sufferings of this life, no matter how raw and inescapable they may seem, are not able to keep us from experiencing the love and power of God.  As the psalmist clearly states, we can go through fire and know that He will lead us to a place of abundance.  Lastly, and this is skipped by our editors this day, we glorify God because we know that He will hear our prayers.  Better still, we know that He will not withhold His love from any who seek Him.  Can you imagine the audacity of such a statement to one outside the covenant?  Not only does God meet our needs and bless us, but He keeps open the lines of communication with all who seek Him!  We may have been the absolute worst human being possible, before we found ourselves kneeling before Him and asking Him to come into our lives; but once we invite Him, He always encourages us to seek Him and His will through prayer.  Better still, He promises never to withhold His love from all those who love Him!
     Given that all of this is our story, can you begin to understand why joy and excitement at the thought of serving God ought to dominate our lives?  The stories that the psalmist tells are our stories.  We are that redeemed people.  Together, we share in the history of the Body of Christ.  We can talk of the amazing works of power by which He has demonstrated His glory, whether in the Exodus event, Elijah’s battle with the Ba’al priests on Mount Carmel, in the Resurrection of the Lord Christ, and anything else which sings to us!  Just as importantly, though, we can give evidence in our own lives of the redemption He has worked on our own behalf.  Each of us gathered here, each of us here glorifying God today has multiple stories of how God met a particular need during a time of suffering or blessed us far beyond anything we ever could have asked or imagined.  These are not just hypothetical events or past mythological happenings.  They are and were real.  We know because we have our own experiences and the memory of the Body.
     Given all that, when is the last time someone asked for account of the joy that is within your life?  Brothers and sisters, if you cannot remember the last time, I want you to spend some serious time in prayer this week asking God why.  Why is nobody asking me for an account of my joy?  Do I not have joy in my heart that He has redeemed me?  Do I resent some of the ministries with which He has tasked me?  Do I even recall all of what He has done for me?  These are not easy questions.  They are also not exhaustive.  It is entirely possible that the Holy Spirit will prompt you to ask other questions, questions which cut right to the bone of your relationship with our Lord God, as you work to reopen the line of communication with God through prayer.  But they are questions that need to be asked.  As Pope Francis reminded those in his flock this weekend, we should be a joyful, laughing, exultant people.  You and I proclaim that our Lord will one day host they greatest marriage feast ever.  Should not our invitations to others, should not the expectation welling up within us cause others to wonder at our excitement and joy, and cause them, in turn, to be swept up in the excitement?


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Aren't slaves controlled by drugs?

     It has come up again on multiple occasions in the past few weeks, so one misunderstanding about human trafficking must be addressed.  Specifically, people assume that most victims of human trafficking are controlled by drugs.  The perception certainly makes sense.  Authorities believe that drugs and human trafficking are often closely tied to one another.  And, given the plethora of drugs out there, it seems reasonable to assume that drug dealing slavers would use one product to help sell another.  People who begin to grapple with understanding the mindset of the victim who seems to remain voluntarily in a slave / slaver relationship are understandably drawn to the idea that the victim must not be in his or her right mind.  Drugs would obviously keep them in an altered state and more pliable, even in the face of possible escape.  Plus, it happens in movies and on television, so it must be true, right?  It all makes for a nice, tidy explanation.  The problem, of course, is that neither economics nor risk reward understanding support such a view.  What do I mean by that last statement?

      Pretend you are a slaver.  Your primary reason for owning slaves is economic exploitation.  The more your slave works, in theory, the more money that you make.  What is the overhead of owning a slave?  There is the initial cost of purchase and transportation.  Maybe there is room and board, if the slave is particularly lucky.  Clothing.  That’s about it.  The reason slavers make so much money is that they make as little an investment as possible in their slaves.  That is one of the big differences between modern slavery and, say, the Atlantic slave trade which led eventually to our Civil War.  Slaves in those days were a real investment, often to the tune of $100,000 in our modern currency.  Slaves today are just another cheap commodity.  A pimp/slaver may take one of his girls to a doctor for an abortion, but do we really think they are providing dental care?  Annual checkups?  STD treatments?  Drugs simply are an unnecessary overhead expense.

     The fact of the matter is that drugs cost money.  In fact, many drugs cost way more than modern slaves!  Worse, the more drugs used by an individual, the more that are required to get the same effect.  Once the human body builds up tolerances, it takes more of a substance to get them high or make them docile or whatever affect we want.  Where drugs costs can be based on the ounce, one can see how the economic cost of keeping ones slaves hooked on drugs will increase over time, at least until the individual in question dies of an overdose.  Now, consider the expense involved if one owns a number of slaves.  The economics simply get to be too costly to support drug control of slaves.

     Besides the economic cost, there is a risk reward cost which also must be considered by any slaver.  While it is true that the country and world is just awakening to the problem of human trafficking, we are all very much aware of the drug problem plaguing the world.  We all know that the United States fought a War on Drugs, and some would argue that we lost, given the recent efforts and successes at legalizing marijuana.  People are conscious of suspicious activities which might indicate a drug transaction.  Every time someone goes to buy illegal drugs, they take a risk.  Will I get caught for purchasing drugs this time?  Has somebody called the cops on us?  Is the seller part of a stingIf my supplier gets pinched, will he or she give me up?

     Pretend again you are a slaver.  The community in which your slaves work is blissfully unaware of how you make your money.  But, to keep your slaves in line, you have to purchase drugs every so often, otherwise the slaves behavior gets a bit more erratic.  How long until someone realizes you are buying lots of drugs?  How long until your supplier is busted and gives you up in a plea deal?  How long until your slave makes a mistake high on those drugs, alerting authorities to a potential drug problem?  Law enforcement may not yet fully understand human trafficking and the extent of brainwashing which slavers use to control their slaves, but they sure understand the illegality of drug purchases and sales.  At some point, the purchase of drugs will likely be discovered by law enforcement, ending the profitable business of slavery.  Society and law enforcement are simply too aware of its presence.

     So what keeps slaves docile, if not drugs?  Violence or the threat of violence are the primary tools of slavers.  Those combined with shame are effective weapons in breaking down another human being.  We know that most victims of trafficking are overwhelmingly female and often minors.  What chance does a 13, 14, 15, 16 year old girl have resisting threats, real or perceived, against her life or the lives of her friends and families?  Further, given the shame culture which permeates much of the world, including the United States, how equipped is our young female victim to fight the stigma that society will place upon her?  How equipped is the young boy or man, for that matter, to deal with the perceived insult to their “manhood”?

     This process of violence and shame are not used to break down another human being quickly.  It does take time.  We know from survivor stories, such as the recent rescue of three girls in Cleveland, that the slavers will pose “tests.”  The slaver may pretend he or she has left after giving the slaves a set of instructions, but, in the beginning, the reality is that the slave is never truly unobserved.  Either the slaver or an appointed lieutenant is always watching the slave.  Once the slave fails to follow the instructions to the letter, the violence immediately follows, thus reinforcing the truth of the threat.  As reported in the recent rescue in Cleveland, Over time, the slave comes to believe that the slaver knows everything the slave does.  Escape fades from a fleeting thought to an unhoped for possibility.  Is it tragic?  Absolutely.

     Well, I heard this story that this person was drugged?  Of course, there are all kinds of exceptions to the rule.  There are stories about slavers using drugs during the “orientation” period to help confuse, addle, and break down their new captive slaves.  And, just as there are people in the world who make bad business decisions in the legitimate business world, there are also people who make bad business decisions in the seedy underworld of human slavery.  Given, however, the cost of drug control and the exposure to raids and stings in drug activity, such a practice remains the exception rather than the rule.

     Does it make it harder for us to understand the mindset of the slave?  Not really, but that understanding may cause us to be a bit more uncomfortable with what we know and what we think we know.  Is our shame culture still so strong that men and women and boys and girls will choose to remain slaves rather than choose to try and escape?  Are we so unaware of the activities going on around us that we miss slaves working under our noses?  Unfortunately, as we continue to scrape at the surface and learn more about the practice of slavers and their effects on slaves, the answer increasingly points to yes.