Tuesday, March 7, 2017

It's a complicated "homily" . . . On the life and witness of Bev.

     As I was meeting Saturday afternoon with William, Jodi, and Jennifer to begin to plan this service, the three of them decided to give me some rather specific instructions.  First, they wanted this part of the service to be a “homily.”  Those of you who are not Episcopalian may not speak code, but that is really is the polite way of saying, “Pastor, we want a short sermon, not a long one.”  Ah, I see by everyone’s laughter such codes exist in other denominations.  That’s good to know.  Then, the three of them began to share what this homily needed to cover.  Chiefly, as many of you know, the family has been through a number of dark clouds and tribulations.  Human beings being human beings, and Church people being Church people, not a few of us over the years have offered them insipid or evil advice over the years as consolation. 
     For those of you who do not know the family well, Bev lost a twin and older sister to a tragic car wreck.  She lost a mother to breast cancer at the ripe old age of 52, just like Bev, who died of lung cancer.  Her brother John had a horrible automobile accident, I believe, right after the service for their mother.  And those are just the noteworthy tragic events.  On top of all that stuff they still had to deal with the “normal” disappointments and vicissitudes of life.  For those of you who have really worried about her soul in light of the fact she has absented herself from church for about two decades, I ask you to mind your own business.  You and I cannot know the weight caused by those insensitive, if well-meaning comments.  The worst, as the family will tell you, are all those versions of God needed another angel now so He took your mother/sister/etc.  Close behind are those equally nasty God never gives you more than you can handle and the You should be happy!  He/she is in a better place now/is not suffering now/etc.  Pretend you have heard such comments from a very young age.  Would you look forward to going to church?  Would you look forward to hanging out with people who say such nonsense?  While I am at it, let me pause for a commercial break.  Do us all a favor, but especially those whom you love: the next time a tragedy happens in the life of someone you love and know, remember silence or I am so sorry for your loss will do much more good than you will ever know.  Don’t be like those who misrepresent God and dishonor Him, driving people from His saving embrace.  Back to the “homily” now . . .
     Besides, many of you have shared with me that Bev was a great person for prayer.  I have been told by a number of friends and co-workers that she always seemed to have the most beautiful way of praying.  I’ll let you in on her secret, now that she is with her Lord: she received this little book, just like the ones in your pews, that has tons of prayers.  Some of them find their roots in the earliest records of the Church.  We Episcopalians, we Anglicans, are encouraged to use them often.  That Bev did and many of you noticed tells me all I really need to know about her faith in our Lord Christ.
     Speaking of the co-workers, I was instructed that the “homily” was supposed to minister to you.  You all deal with death and disease all the time.  For all your expertise and knowledge, all any of you can really do is put off the time of death.  Eventually, the human body and human spirit succumb.  Despite your best efforts, despite the best each of you has to offer, death is a constant companion, even when it is one of your own.  Where is the Gospel in that?  What good is it really, if all you can do is lessen the effects of aging for a time?  What good is it if you cannot heal even yourself or a beloved coworker such as Bev or, as I later learned, Cathy?  Your community has been hit hard these last few days, and people have noticed.
     Another instruction or request was that I focus more about the good stuff in the Bible rather than the bad.  Bev was a bit of a party girl, I am told.  In fact, I am told she was sometimes the life of any party she attended.  I see the nods.  Given the pain and suffering in her life, I cannot claim to be surprised.  Given the tragedies of her life, Bev likely realized that life was fleeting, that every moment of every day needed to be savored, enjoyed, celebrated.  Plus, in the midst of some of those inane comments I mentioned earlier, I trust that my predecessors here at Advent, and others in her life, reminded her that we are called to THE FEAST.  I know, down here in Nashville we all know of denominations that like to present the Gospel as “repent or go to Hell.”  In truth, the Gospel is so much more than that.  Yes, there is judgment, consequence for whether we choose to claim Jesus as Lord or to reject Him, but God is always inviting us, always wooing us to come to the great Wedding Feast.  Imagine the best foods.  Think on your favorite drinks.  Now add the best chocolate dessert you can imagine.  And Bev, were she able and if she desired, would be laughing at our paltry imaginations.  The Lord of Hosts, the Maker of all that is, seen and unseen, has prepared this Feast for us.  It’s way better than we could ever ask or imagine.  That, I hope, is the sermon that Bev preached into each of your lives.  That, I hope, is the message that you wanted to take away from her life and death as a servant of Christ.
     Finally, did I mention this is a short “homily,” I was supposed to preach the Gospel winsomely and with power, that you all might be drawn to the love of Christ, just as was Bev, that you might be encouraged to stand against the powers and principalities of this world, and the evil they promote, and lay claim to that magnificent “Nevertheless!”  Bad things happen to Christians.  Horrible things.  Nevertheless, we trust that God will keep His word to us.  Imagine how amazing that wedding feast must be for Bev to have had every tear tenderly, lovingly wiped away by her Lord.  Imagine how it must feel to be reunited with those whom she loved and mourned—all in the saving embrace of her Lord and our Father in heaven.
     Now, I see the elbow nudges and some of the whispering and chuckling.  Just so you know, I gave as well as I got from William, Jodi, and Jennifer.  I made them select the readings for today.  You want to see panic on somebody’s face?  Hand them a Bible and tell them they knew the deceased the best and can pick five readings from anywhere in there.  Let’s take another commercial break, if you all will permit me in this “homily.”  If you go to church, take the time to plan your own funeral service.  It is a wonderful gift to all those who know you, but especially to your family.  In the days after the death of a loved, no one wants to worry about which reading or which song.  Just plan it and give it to your pastor.  He or she will thank you, and your love ones will be glad not to have that responsibility thrust upon them.  Back to our “homily.”  So, the three of them chose the readings based on their love of Bev and a desire to help me preach a “homily.”  Those of you who think our humor here at Bev’s passing in a bit inappropriate or dishonoring should be relieved by the verses chosen.  Whether William, Jodi, and Jennifer were that intentional when the selected the readings, I do not know.  I did not have time to ask them this morning.  I’m just going to assume that they selected the readings intentionally, with each of you in mind.  See, William’s nodding.  The picked the so-called courtroom setting of John 5.  Who does that?  But, as I prayed and reflected over the selected passages, I realized John 5 was the perfect place for us to seek those answers all of us here are seeking today.
     The Gospel lesson comes at the end of a perfect teaching for a group of doctors and nurses gathered together.  The statement by Jesus comes after His encounter with the paraplegic by the pool of Bethzatha.  We don’t use the word paraplegic much any more.  It seems to be a term that is too negative for modern sensibilities.  We speak of special needs and those with wheelchairs.  Such terminology, such euphemisms did not exist in the Ancient Near East.  The pool at Bethzatha was a famous pool in the heritage of Israel.  From time to time the pool would bubble, caused by an angel.  Whoever made it into the pool and the bubbles first were healed of whatever affliction.
     Now, pretend you are this paraplegic man.  Your friends have gotten you to the pool.  And let’s just get it right out there, these friends are every bit like Jennifer or the people who let Bev use their house as transitioned from glory into glory.  This paraplegic man would need either to be carried or to drag himself around by means of his hands and knuckles.  Starvation would be a constant enemy.  Personal hygiene would be one, too.  Those who have lost the use of their legs often have little to no control of the bladders or bowels.  I see the nods of understanding and disgust now.  The paraplegic man would be utterly dependent upon others for cleanliness, in a world where cleanliness was not what we consider cleanliness to be.  In fact, caring for this man would have been costly for friends.  They would have been ritually unclean for tending to his needs.  Touching him would have meant they needed to go through a ritual of purification before they could return to Temple to worship.  For 38 years, this has been the life of this man and that of his friends and family.  And that man is that close to God’s grace and healing.  Every time the pool bubbled, we can imagine his herculean effort to try and get into the bubbling pool.  Every time, we are told by John, someone else beats him to it and receives God’s blessing.  He was tantalizingly close to the healing he so desired, and it was ever so close out of reach.
     I suspect you doctors and nurses among us this day understand that particular frustration.  In my time with healers, I have heard all kinds of frustration about the possibilities of healing.  We none medical types will often say to you “Physician/nurse, heal yourself.”  If you are in our families, we expect you to know exactly what we need all the time.  Many of you in the healthcare field take it upon yourself to be the healer of all your patients.  It is more of a vocation than a job.  And when the body fails or a drug causes a side effect or we seem so close to a cure, you in the world of healthcare field are ever so frustrated.  I did not know Bev in life before last Wednesday, but the stories I have heard about her from co-workers and friends simply reflect that frustration.  And when you are the ones who are sick, how much more so do you want to be healed?  How much more so do you expect to succeed?  For 2 ½ years some of you helped Bev fight this cancer.  No doubt some of you leant her your best wisdom.  She certainly did not quit.  When she asked for me to come over, I expected to do the service we colloquially call Last Rites.  Bev would have none of it.  She asked for anointing and a prayer for healing, and she asked for Communion.  Still, despite all your efforts and despite all her struggles death, in the end, won.  And yet, deaths like Bev remind us all where true healing is to be found and remind us that death has not really won.
     Jesus comes up to the paraplegic man and asks him if he wants to be made well.  The man acknowledges his problem.  He has no one to carry him into the bubbling pool.  Every time he struggles toward the pool, someone beats him to it and claims the healing.  So Jesus tells the man to stand up, take his mat, and walk.  There is no fancy prayer or invocation.  It is a simple series of commands.  Suddenly, we are told, the man is made well and walked.
     There’s just one problem.  Jesus did this healing on the Sabbath.  We just don’t do that, right?  God’s people are not supposed to work on the Sabbath.  Sure, we may go to dinners after church or do our shopping and depend on other people working on our Sabbath, but we are not supposed to do any labor on the Sabbath.  They confront the man because he was carrying his mat.  The man says he is only doing what he was told.  Some guy said for me to get up, take my mat, and walk.  So here I am.  They are furious that a healing miracle has occurred.  “Who did this?” they demand.  The former paraplegic man does not know.  He meets Jesus again and learns the identity of the healer, and then he goes and tells all those who are angry with him.  Can you imagine the scene?  This guy has been crippled for 38 years and all that anyone notices is that he was healed on the Sabbath!
     Jesus is then confronted by those in power, and the courtroom scene begins in earnest.  Jesus lays claim to the power and authority that have been given Him by His Father.  All your favorite supernatural miracles, all the healing miracles, all the miracles involving his power over demons, everything we read of His miracles testify to His identity.  Heck, he just healed a cripple on the Sabbath!  If He was not special to God, how could He accomplish such a feat?  Sadly, the Jews, like many of us, are simply blind to these amazing works of power.  They miss this healing because it happened on a Sabbath.  The miss the casting out of demons because the swine herd is killed and is a threat to their economy.  Only 1 of the lepers bothers to come back and thank Jesus.  The list goes on and on.  And that’s ok.  Each person is responsible for their response to Jesus.  Each person who encounters Jesus is responsible for their response to His claim on his or her life.  Either we accept that He is who He said He is and determine to follow Him, as best as we can in these failing, fleshy bodies; or we reject Him as a con man or crazy man, a man undeserving of our worship and adoration.  Who is He for you?
     I am loathe to force people to answer such a question at a funeral.  Emotions are raw.  Guilt and shame are present.  People are easily manipulated.  Yet I have been asked by some of you in attendance where I think she is.  I get it.  We have a mix of denominations and, therefore, a difference in understanding of what it means to be a “good” Christian.  We want the easy answers so we can feel assured about ourselves.  My answer to all of you who have wondered that, even if you have not asked me directly yet, is to quit worrying about Bev and to worry more about yourself and those who are important to you.  None of us can do anything for Bev now.  She is beyond the reach of all our collective skill, all our collective love, and all our collective knowledge.  Besides, in the end, our opinions do not matter in the slightest.  The One whose opinion really matters, the One whom were are reminded this afternoon was given all authority, the One who hung and died upon that Cross two thousand years ago—Jesus’ answer to that question really is the only one that matters.  He is the One who judges the heart; He is the only One who knows all our hearts.
     Still, I would be remiss did I not give you all reason to hope.  We just heard that famous Psalm, #23.  Even those of us here today who reject Jesus as Savior and Lord know that psalm.  If ever there was a person who walked through valleys shadowed by death and suffering, it was Bev.  As I mentioned a few minutes ago, a number of you were struck by the beauty of her prayers.  Even as she seemed disengaged from the Church, still she was praying to God.  At the end, as death reached for its embrace of her, how did she respond?  She asked for the Healer.  Despite the vicissitudes of her life and despite the nearness of her own passing, she clung to the One who promised He would redeem all things in her life, even her own death, even as she fought that death to end.  Now, I am confident that she has received the healing she so long desired.
     Brothers and sisters, you are in a difficult time.  I get that.  This, death, was not what was supposed to happen.  You have lots of questions.  I understand that.  Some of you may have a relationship with God that can only best be described as “It’s complicated.”  I get it.  More importantly, He does, too.  Many of those questions are better addressed in individual conversations than in “homily” form.  That’s why, in the end, He sent His only Son.  As determined as we are to be faithful Christians, you and I fail all the time.  So all He asks instead is that we trust Him.  He did the heavy lifting, right up to that Cross on Calvary.  And to remind us that these words He spoke were true, to remind us that all authority was given to Jesus, to remind us of the Power present in Him, He was raised on that wonderful Easter morning 2000 years ago.  And now, thankfully, as we stand at the grave of our sister Bev, we sing our alleluias, trusting that all her life and even her death have now been redeemed, and that, even as she is being greeted by those who went before, she will be there to greet us when we follow in her footsteps, when we answer her life’s sermon and claim that same healing and Healer as our own.

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Disconnects. An Ash Wednesday word . . .

     There are days that seem disjointed and then days that seem simply too well orchestrated to be anything other than of God.  Most Ash Wednesday’s, I find myself a little discombobulated, as do some of you.  Our Gospel lesson always centers around the idea of not making a show of our piety, but what do we do in a few minutes?  We make a show of our piety by allowing ourselves to be marked with the sign of the cross in ashes.  It does not fit.  I have been leading Ash Wednesday services for fourteen years in three different dioceses, and people always come up to me and ask me about that one.  Today, though, is like another of those days described by Joel.
     If you are unfamiliar with the prophet Joel, you should take a few minutes and read his book.  It’s not long.  While I am at it, let me suggest the minor prophets as a genre for Lent.  It’s not I am asking you to read the books of Isaiah or Jeremiah.  Anyway, Joel is a bit tough for many of us because the days of judgment which he described are not easy to place in history.  We are fairly certain Joel is writing to the people of God during the ascendance of the Persian empire in world affairs.  We are fairly certain that Joel wrote after the return from Exile.  Beyond that, there is not a lot of information.  In fact, I read a couple commentaries these last couple weeks that even make interesting academic arguments regarding the nature of the plague attacking Jerusalem.  Some claim it was really a swarm of locusts that destroyed crops and the accompanying economy of Jerusalem and Judah.  Others make the argument that Joel was writing about invading troops and used the bug imagery to keep himself alive and his prophesy able to be disseminated.
     Such arguments are fun to read in an academic setting, but I think they miss the point of the disconnect and the connect of today’s worship.  What do I mean?  Joel, of course, is a prophet of God.  That means he speaks God’s message.  When Joel describes the locust swarm and resulting starvation and ruin in the terms of the “Day of the Lord,” he taps into that visceral understanding we all share about calamities and disasters.  How many of us face disasters and bad news without some sense we deserved it?  How often do our friends and neighbors, because we are too serious Christians to fall for such nonsense, think that God is often punishing us for particular behavior?  Joel ties calamities and disasters to the judgment of God.  More specifically, he ties the swarm and resulting famine to the extreme punishments of God for covenantal unfaithfulness.  To speak in modern language, Joel is proclaiming an anti-Eucharist.  Each time we gather in worship, Holly and I remind each of us that this, this bread and this wine and this joy and this celebration that we share is simply a foreshadowing, an appetizer of the Great Feast that is to come.  Joel flips that language on its head.  These punishments, he asserts, are just a hint at the real hurt that is coming.  As scary as things seem, when God comes they are going to be so much worse for those who reject Him and His offer of salvation.  Tough message, huh?  Just because it is tough, though, does not make it any less true.
     Think back, if you can, to this morning.  As the sirens went off, the sky darkened, the thunder crashed, the lightning flashed, the tornadoes destroyed, and the winds roared, what were your thoughts?  Did you completely and truly avoid the idea that maybe this was your end?  For those of us in church this morning, as the storms hit, it was a powerful reminder of the truth conveyed by Joel.  Clouds and darkness really were gathering.  Winds were howling, even if they were not blowing like a trumpet.  Some of us were very concerned for loved ones as the sirens on our phones went off.  People slipped out to take a couple calls, so close were some loved one’s to the heart of the destruction.  It seemed for just a moment that the Day of the Lord was truly among us!  Some of us were no doubt afraid for ourselves or for loved ones; yet we are the same ones who claim He has Risen from the grave!  We are the same ones who point people to the God of the Living in Whom we place our trust, just as did Joel.  That realization likely caused a couple of apologies, though I suspect most were simply afraid they had interrupted the service.  Disconnects indeed.
     Corporately, Advent has had some other powerful ministry today against the day of clouds and the think darkness.  Holly was invited to a nursing home to impose ashes.  Technically speaking, we were invited and I sent Holly, but she went gladly and enthusiastically.  Holly went in your name, and God’s, to visit a group of people who deal a bit more frequently with questions of mortality.  While there, Holly shared in their dissonance.  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  And in that message of death, Holly also reminded them that God loved them.  Though some feel abandoned by churches, Holly was there to remind each of them that the Lord loved each one of them, that the Lord cares deeply for each one of them, and that the Lord will redeem each one of them.
     Have you ever visited assisted living facilities?  There are many things that residents like to see and hear and do.  I have never come across a resident who, in their 20’s and 30’s, thought that would be the life they would be living later.  Everyone was going to still be in their houses.  Most expected to be travelling.  All hoped to be surrounded by loved ones, especially on important days.  There is an important shift going on in this country with respect to such facilities.  They serve an invaluable function, allowing us the independence we crave, even as we realize we need differing levels of help.  But, in general terms, we as a society have not made that turn yet.  The last thing that current residents need, though, is to be reminded that death is stalking them!  Many read the obits in the morning as they eat their breakfast and drink their coffee looking to see if friends have passed.  They lose fellow residents consistently.  Such residents understand viscerally that death is a close companion.  Yet there was Holly, marking them with ashes, reminding them of something they know all too well, reminding them, too, that the Maker of heaven and earth loves them dearly!  Disconnect.
     I had the wonderful blessing of visiting an Adventer, who long ago stopped attending, who now faces the imminent shadow of death.  I went expecting to do ministration at the time of death, what we colloquially call last rites, but I was asked not to by the Adventer in question.  Instead, I anointed her with oil, prayed against the disease ravaging her body, and offered the Eucharist to her friends and family.  I call the visit a blessing and a privilege because I got to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, some redemption.  God was clearly at work in the midst.  Bartimaeus could have seen that.  There were lots of questions, as one might expect, but there were also some observations.  The prayer that I prayed over her spoke to other tragedies in the lives of those present.  So much darkness.  So much pain.  And I was reminding them of the hope of our calling.  I was reminding them that this, all they were recalling and all they were witnessing, was not what He intended.  Disconnects abound.
     The last disconnect is rather vain.  I take for granted the colors of my clergy shirts.  Those around us sure do not.  Those in the neighborhood and those at places I frequent apparently forgot I wore black a mere 46 weeks ago or so.  Father, what happened?  Father, who died?  My favorite was, “Father, you should wear black more often, it makes you look thinner.”  I guess it’s true when they say black makes us look slimmer.  We are laughing a bit, and rightfully so, we remind ourselves on Ashe Wednesday and during Lent that we are sinners in God’s sight.  Through self-examination and prayers and fasting we are supposed to discern where we have erred and strayed like lost sheep.  The rest of the year, though, we concentrate on the love of God, on the call to the Feast, on all the happy things.  But do we?  Do the colors of my shirt cause those with whom I interact to think of God differently?  Does black mean He is mad at us?  Does green mean he is happy with us?  But can’t we be thankful and joyful in the midst of ashes which remind us of our need and of His willingness to meet our need?  Can’t we be inspired and awed even as we celebrate with bright colors?
     As I was thinking of disconnects before today and then during the day, I was also thinking how the disconnects really extend into the other seasons.  We, meaning you and I, simply choose to ignore them.  As American Christians you and I are surrounded by Silent Night Holy Night, Venite Adoramus Dominu, the manger, and the lowing animals.  But His birth was announced by an army of angels whose very presence terrified the shepherds.  Disconnect.  His birth, announced by a star, caused wise men to travel great distance to pay him homage.  We call that even the Epiphany, the season that just ended.  We don’t know much about those men, really.  Were they kings?  Were they just wise?  They certainly were men of substance.  They were welcomed by a king who picked their brain of their knowledge and wisdom.  Gold may have been the least expensive gift they offered this new King.  His birth, though, caused them to travel the distance, to give those wonderful gifts, and to kneel in homage.  Disconnect.  Their journey, and the message they carried, caused another king to lash out in fear and wipe out all the infants and toddlers who might have been a threat to his rule.  Disconnect.
     Joel’s message, and the message you and I are tasked with sharing each and every week as His ambassadors, is very much one of disconnect.  Our proclamation is that He is dwelling among us.  God is here.  And such a claim really is disconnecting and disconcerting.  Such a claim ought to fill us with gladness and unease.  What does it mean to be one who proclaims His Gospel?  What does it mean to be one of His chosen people?  More frighteningly, what does it mean to be one who rejects Him?  What does it mean to be one who chooses to continue on our own path and ignore His claim on our lives?  In the end each of us is responsible for answering those questions with either faithful obedience or willful rejection.  And our answer has all kinds of repercussions and consequences, the greatest of which will be our position before Him when He comes again to judge the heavens and the earth on His day, the Day of the Lord.
     Brothers and sisters, in a few moments Holly will mouth the words calling us all to a season of fasting and prayer and self-examination.  In a few moments, Holly will mouth the words that call us to a Holy Lent.  But although she mouths the words, remember who it is that calls you to these things.  Remember who it is that bids you kneel and remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.  It is none other than the Lord, the Lord who claimed you as His own and sealed you as His own forever on that day you were baptized.  It is none other than the Lord who took the sackcloth, ashes, pain, and suffering for your sins upon Himself, that each of us might share in the joy of His Resurrection forever.  Disconnect, indeed!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†