Saturday, February 05, 2022

General Convention is Coming - And You Can Play a Part!

 I think most folks who have seen this blog know that it began reflecting on matters beyond chaplaincy. That’s why, among others things, I have written many posts about General Convention. General Convention has always been important to me as an Episcopalian (I know that may seem obvious, but I bet we all know enough Episcopalians who don’t think about General Convention), and especially as a wonk. I appreciate that the ecclesiology expressed in the Episcopal Church considers that the Holy Spirit moves in each person, and so we hear the Holy Spirit most clearly when the greatest number of us are thinking together. That is the value of General Convention: more than 1,000 folks are gathered to share how they’re hearing the Spirit and lead the Episcopal Church accordingly.

With that in mind, there is a great opportunity available to all of us this year. The 80th General Convention was delayed a year by the pandemic, and will gather this summer. That also allowed for time for an unexpected chance for so many to participate. From the Episcopal News Service: “General Convention committees to welcome public to first-ever online legislative hearings.

If you’ve never been to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (and I think every Episcopalian should attend, even if only as a Visitor -yes, that’s an official status - and only for a day or two), you may not be aware how matters are decided in General Convention. It looks an awful lot like legislative meetings of the United States or of the various states. Things are voted on. And like those other legislative bodies, a lot of the important work happens in committees. It’s really in the committees that legislation is considered and shaped, and, especially, that testimony is heard. 

In General Convention, any person registered (including Visitors and Exhibitors, another real status) can testify before a Committee, as time allows. Granted, in meetings in person Deputies and Bishops get the first chance to testify, because they may be from other committees, and so need to get back to that work. However, anyone else can put a word in. Testifying by individuals adds information and often a lot of reality and emotional power to the consideration and shaping of a resolution. A resolution is less abstract when you hear how real people are affected by the issues addressed. 

This year at least some committees are meeting ahead of Convention, and meeting online. That will give opportunities for testimony in the Zoom meetings, and that might allow testimony from many of us who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in Convention. As a chaplain I think that’s a great opportunity. We have perspectives on how issues affect people who are receiving healthcare or working in healthcare institutions, perspectives that aren’t heard that often. That’s not to suggest our parish-based clergy and lay siblings wouldn’t care, but that we live in an environment they don’t see every day.

So, ready the article carefully to see how you might participate. Then, go the General Convention Virtual Binder. You can find all the resolutions currently received. For background on the A resolutions (remember, there are A, B, C, and D resolutions, but for this purpose the differences aren’t important), check out the Reports to General Convention, also known as the Blue Book. A few meetings will have happened before you see this, but many more will be coming. You can find the schedule here. And remember to check back regularly on both resolutions and committee meetings. Resolutions will be coming in right up to the first days of Convention; and while you might not have an opportunity to participate in Zoom testimony, you will certainly have an opportunity to let your own bishop and Deputies know what you think. You can also find the lists of committee members here, and so perhaps share perspectives with a bishop or Deputy you know. Oh, and if you don't know who's in your own diocesan deputation (and every one of us who's endorsed has a diocesan connection) you can find that out here.

This really is an important opportunity. Please take the time to read the article, and then explore your own innate wonkiness to help shape the positions and direction of the Episcopal Church

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Philip and the Evidence: a Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Epiphany 1, 2022

 This sermon, or one something like it, was preached January 9, 2022, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.

When I was ordained - both times I was ordained - I was ordained a deacon on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, at the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville. And I grew up in Knoxville. You've heard that before. And my mother's people are from Caryville, in the coal country north of Knoxville, on lower reaches of the Plateau, but north and east of here. When I was ordained I found myself wondering, so I'm going to get to this point in the service and the Bishop is going to lay hands on my head. What would happen if I were slain in the Spirit?  And a little over six months later, when I was ordained a priest at St John's Church in Memphis - then it was the Bishop and also all the other priests laying hands on my head - what would happen if I were slain in the Spirit? 

Now, if you're not familiar with that phrase, it is one of those moments, common in Charismatic and, Pentecostal expressions of Christianity, where the Spirit comes on someone and they are laid out on the floor, bang! Let’s call it a holy faint, but it’s believed to happen because the Spirit overwhelms the person.  And having grown up in this part of the country and knowing something about and even experiencing Pentecostal worship, I wondered about that. What would happen if Bishop Sanders laid hands on my head and I were slain in the Spirit?

Which brings us to today. No, not me being slain in the Spirit, but today, for all that we talk about the baptism, all of the focus is on God being present in the Spirit and God being present where we don't expect it. 

Today I want to talk about Philip. Where did Philip come from? Anytime you look at the Lectionary and you see a set of verses as short and truncated as we have in the Acts lesson today, the first thing to do is ask yourself what's missing; because when they've made that tight of selection, the context may be really interesting. And I found the context today really interesting because it's about Philip. 

The disciples heard that the word had come to Samaria - well, wait a minute! How did that happen? And why? Samaria of all places! We know, and especially from Luke, that Jews and Samaritans, they didn't talk to each other. They actually had some common roots, but some significant differences. And it was one of those things where they were in many ways so alike, they couldn't stand each other. Why Samaria?

Well, the answer to the question is Philip, Philip the Deacon. Now, how does Philip become a deacon? If you remember, and we hear earlier in Acts that the members of the early Christian community who were Greek-speaking Jews kind of felt like they were being shorted by the early Christian community who were Hebrew-speaking Jews, Aramaic-speaking Jews. And so the Apostles said, “Well, we're going to appoint seven good men as diakonoi, waiters - basically seven leaders in the Greek-speaking part of our community, who will make sure that the widows and orphans get their due.” The most famous of them was Stephen, but also justly famous is Philip. And when you look into the rest of the story and you look into the eighth chapter of Acts as a whole, the first thing you see is that after Stephen was martyred, there was persecution in Jerusalem and the Christian community, or some scholars think maybe just the Greek-speaking part of the Christian community, got scattered. And in that scattering, Philip goes to Samaria.

This is also the same Philip who at the end of this chapter meets the Ethiopian eunuch on the road. See, there is this consistency about Philip. He was ordained, we would say now, for the function of taking care of the people who were left out. And so when he is thrown out of Jerusalem, he goes to some of the most left out people that he can imagine. He goes to Samaria. 

And by God's grace, he's successful in Samaria. He is convicting in Samaria. They believe, and they see him doing wonderful things. In fact, one of them who sees him doing wonderful things is a guy by the name of Simon. We know him as Simon Magus, the guy who, after he sees what happens with the Apostles will say, “Listen, lay hands on me, too, and give me this power and, and I'll pay you for it.”

And Peter will say, “You keep your money. You do not understand. And your heart is not in the right place.” And this is interesting, because Simon believed, Simon had been baptized, too. 

He and others had received baptism in Jesus, but had not yet received the Spirit. Isn't it amazing what happens when they just give you this little chunk here: we have a minister, someone who is committed to the ministry of those who've been left out, and he goes to those who've been left out and time after time he is successful. And in fact, we know that the Spirit is with Philip because at the end of the chapter, it is the Spirit that catches Philip up, carries him out of Samaria, and takes him down to the road south of Jerusalem to meet the Ethiopian eunuch.

 At the same time, Philip for all his success needed, or at least the early Church felt he needed, confirmation of his authority.  And in Jerusalem the remaining Christians and the Twelve hear, my Lord! My Lord is doing something in Samaria. Phillip’s got something going in Samaria. And they don't go down there and say, “You shouldn't have done it.” They don't go down there and say, “This is a good start, but we're gonna finish it off.” They go down there and say, “Okay, so far so good. And we will now lay hands on all of them.” It's easy for us to confuse this, and I imagine some people have seen this, as a model for Confirmation as we practice it in the Church post the Apostolic Age. I don't think this is really that because this is not so much liturgical. This is a new step in bringing these outcasts - and believe me to Peter and John the son of Zebedee, these people would still have been outcast: they’re Samaritans! -  and they bring them into the Body. And we know they're brought into the Body because when they lay hands on them and pray, they receive the Holy Spirit

And whatever they do, there is enough evidence that the Holy Spirit has been received, that, again,  Simon wants in - unfortunately wants to buy his way in and not believe his way in - because he sees something. We don't know exactly what, but he sees something. Now we've spent a lot of time in the years since thinking about what that something is. And we know that it's important because in the baptism of Jesus, in all of the stories we have in the Synoptic gospels of the baptism of Jesus, this moment happens.  Luke all but ignores that Jesus was baptized, doesn't even say that he was baptized by John. Look in your bulletins and you'll see that they took a few verses out. In those verses John gets arrested. In Matthew and Mark it's a little bit later, but in Luke John gets arrested apparently before Jesus gets baptized. Odd, considering it's Luke that makes a concrete connection between John and Jesus. And we still believe he was actually baptized by John, but Luke doesn't make a big deal of that. What he does continue to make a deal of is that after the baptism and as Jesus is praying, it is under those circumstances is that the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends visibly as a dove, “in bodily form.” There's something there to see that lands on Jesus. And there is a voice. There is something there to hear, or at least that Jesus hears: “You are my beloved Son. And I am pleased with you.”

So we know how critical the Spirit is in empowering people, right? Because this is where Jesus' ministry starts. John is now off the table. This is where Jesus' ministry starts, and it has to do with this wonderful Trinitarian moment. Don't miss that. The Son here's, the Father speaks, the Spirit descends, the Trinity's present. And it is from this moment that we start seeing the evidence. 

See, the church has always taught that when theS pirit is moving, there's evidence. We have lists from Paul in Romans and in First Corinthians of the gifts of the Spirit. Actually, there are several different lists of the gifts of the Spirit. And I've seen some people try to say there are seven and some nine -  I actually read was something that said they were 18 because with all of these different lists, they wanted to make them additive, not overlapping. But there are certainly the ones that Paul talks about in Romans 12: prophecy, ministry, teaching, preaching, charity or giving, leading or governance, mercy. And later on, he also talks about tongues and interpretation of tongues, but in a context where, okay, that happens, but that's hardly the most important of the gifts.  Elsewhere, Paul talks about fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long suffering, meekness, faith, modesty, self-control, chastity. So the expectation has always been when the Spirit moves, there’s evidence. Understand, if you look at those lists, it doesn't have to be dramatic. Again, I had that wondering about what would happen if I were slain in the Spirit, but it seems that the most profound and important evidences of the Spirit aren't that dramatic. They're in day-to-day living and in day-to-day functions that serve to reflect God's presence in the world. 

It’s kind of like my perspective on miracles. Most of you know that I spent nearly 40 years as a hospital chaplain, and people would say to me, “Have you seen any miracles?” I would say, “I've seen lots of them.” But I want you to appreciate my perspective on a miracle. A miracle is an event that shows God's presence in the world, whether we think we understand it or not. It’s a miracle when the medicine works - Not because we didn't think it would, but because it's evidence of God working in the world. It's a miracle when people get better. And I will tell you sometimes as a chaplain, it is a miracle when people find rest at last, not because we don't understand what's going on, or we don't have a perspective on how God is working in the universe, but because these are signs of God's presence in the world.

So Jesus, having been baptized and praying, receives the Spirit in this sense, and I say in this sense for a reason, and his ministry begins and we see the evidence; and Philip goes to another group of cast out people, the Samaritans, and he's preaching and baptizing and there's evidence. And the Apostles come down to confirm the evidence. And the evidence is certainly perhaps healings and wonders, but also the way the church is built up. And also the way people who had been cast out, left out, are brought in and made part of the community. 

Ordination is like that. My ordination, your ordination - I mean, you knew that right? One of the best comments I knew from my recently retired Bishop, Bishop Marty Fields, was that the primary ordination for ministry is in baptism. And we receive the Spirit from God, which we know is going on in baptism - if not only in baptism - for ministry, to see the evidence. And lay people have the broadest perspective on where that evidence can be shown. Bishop Field said that in ordination, your focus, or where you show your evidence, just gets narrower and narrower. The Bishop has the least scope of all because that's most focused. The layperson has the most choices of where and how to show evidence of the Spirit working in the world and the most opportunities with these varied gifts that any one of us may have. - and one of these gifts each one of us surely does have - to show the evidence of the Spirit working in the world. Maybe it's like what happened with the Lectionary. What I mean by that is, I saw this little snippet and said, “There's got to be more to the story than this. There's something going on. I’ve got to put in some effort to look for it.”

By the same token, we believe that by virtue of God's presence, the Spirit is working in the world. We believe that by virtue of our baptism, the Spirit is in some sense working in each of us. And we may need to put in some extra effort to see it. Sometimes it's harder to see it working in other people. Sometimes in our overly-expressed humility, it’s hard to see it working in ourselves; but the opportunity is there to see and participate in the work of the Spirit in the world. For after all, we have been baptized in the baptism of Christ in a tradition that comes to us from the Apostles. We have been baptized and we can start looking in our own lives and in the lives of others for the evidence that in us is the Holy Spirit and the fire, the power, to show the Spirit in the world.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Looking Back and Forward: A Sermon for Advent III, Year C

Preached at Pleasant Hill Community Church (UCC) in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. If you'd like to see the service and sermon in context, you can see that here.

The Gospel lesson tells this story from Luke’s text. We also have it in Matthew, but today we’re looking at Luke. 

So, the people went to the Jordan to hear from John, the Baptizer. And when they arrived, this is what they heard:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Now, this is different from Matthew. In Matthew, John is speaking especially to the Scribes and the Pharisees. In Luke, John is speaking to everyone.

In either case, it seems a very familiar sermon. It’s an expanded version of what we’ve seen so often by the roadside: a cross-shaped sign emblazoned with, “Get Right With God!”

And what were they getting right for? 

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And avoiding the fire seems to have been on the minds of those who heard John. “What do we do?” they asked. 

“If you have two coats, share!” said John. 

If you have more than enough to eat, share!,” said John.

“If you have a job that gives room for theft, fraud or extortion, 

don’t!” said John. 

This is also different from Matthew. Matthew just left his listeners hanging. Luke at least gave them something to do.

Again, this seems a very familiar sermon. How many of us have experienced sermons with just this point: either you live right, or it’s fire! 

I have to imagine it was also familiar to most of John’s congregation. We sometimes speak of John as the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, largely in recognition that he proclaims the Lord’s intention of the New Covenant. That’s true; and it’s also true that among the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures this was a well known proclamation. The Jews in the congregation would have known that well. And even the soldiers would have had some idea. In the Roman Empire there were plenty of ethical teachers to remind folks that it’s wrong to steal or extort. They might have had different ideas of what the consequences would be, but they agreed that there were consequences for doing wrong. Everybody in the crowd would have had some opportunity to look forward to those consequences, and to look back at what they’d heard, what they’d learned, so as to avoid the fire.

And what a relief in what they heard! It was all familiar! There was something they could do! They could be in control!

But, then, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If it’s just about right behavior, then we’re in control. Oh, there’s lip service to God being in control. After all, it’s God that has the fire and knows how to use it. But, really, God’s not in control. We are! And, oh, how reassuring that is!

It’s how we are, really. There’s plenty of research that human beings are hardwired to fear losing in the present more than to hope for the future. That makes it really reassuring when we can look back to find the tactics to move forward. Indeed, it can lead us to the false conclusion that we can use the past to shape a future that doesn’t have to change. We’re in control, and what we see looking forward will look as familiar as the present.

But, what if we’re not in control? What if the future is being shaped in ways we don’t expect? What if God is in control, and not only in control, but free to do new, unexpected things?

It’s possible, you know. If God really is in control and we aren’t, doesn’t that mean we can’t just look back to see forward? 

Maybe, it means looking back to see when God has not been predictable. Maybe it means looking back to see God call, not just for a justice we can control, but for a hope that is beyond our shaping.

That theme is in the prophets, too. That’s what we see in the passage today from Isaiah. You can find some interesting parallels between Isaiah’s day and John’s. The province of Judea was under Roman domination. In Isaiah’s time, the nation of Judah was threatened by the large, powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire. And, while at the time of our passage Judah hadn’t fallen, Judah’s neighbors had or soon would. The Assyrians in their time were just as infamous as the Romans would be for imposing their laws and culture on conquered nations. Indeed, they were, if anything, worse, tearing conquered peoples from their homelands and settling them in the midst of strangers.

In the face of this, the prophets in Isaiah certainly call for righteous behavior, but they also call for trust: trust that God is in control, and trust that God can bring about a future that’s not just another round of the past we already know.

And so we have the hymn from Isaiah in today’s lessons.

Surely, it is God who saves me; *

  I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *

  and he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *

  from the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say, *

  Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples; *

  see that they remember that his Name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *

  and this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *

  for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Now, this is a very different proclamation, isn’t it! This is not about us getting right with God to escape the fire. This is about God making things right, and our joy in it. This is not about us doing what we’ve always done, hoping to get something no worse than we always got. This is about God being free to do new things, unexpected things, which we will recognize in faith and for which we will give thanks.

There is a turn this Third Sunday of Advent. Since August our lessons have, one way or another, spoken to the coming Reign of God. That peaked on the last Sunday of the Church year when the lessons reflected ideas of what the complete presence of God’s reign might look like; but even in the first Sundays of Advent, we have still been hearing about the promise of God’s reign. If we look back at how earthly empires appear, like John’s congregation we might expect God’s reign to look like any other conquering force.

If, on the other hand, we look back to see how God has surprised us, and how God has called for faith in hope, and not simply obedience in fear of fire, we might glimpse a different future, one that we don’t control but that offers so much promise; one where we live right, not to avoid the fire, but to participate in God’s grace. 

We might look forward, then, and recognize it when God does unexpected things - like, providing children to a woman long past her time and to a man near dead; or leading a people to freedom through the depths of the sea; or proclaiming promise in the midst of a frightened people; or sending an angel to talk to a young girl; or starting the restoration of the universe in a village shed.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Time to Suit Up: a Sermon for Proper 16, 8.22.2021

 Preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee, August 22, 2021.

You know, there is always a story. That used to be the bane of people I used to work with because it didn't matter what the topic was, there was always a story. The story this morning is actually not a teaching story. It's an experience out of my own life. Early in my ministry, I got asked to do a wedding and this was a great pleasure for me because the groom was a very good friend of mine from college, very close friend. And he was a little out of his element. He had grown up in the country in Tennessee, although he by this time had gone on and graduated from college and completed his law degree and was doing quite well. But there was that part of him that was still an East Tennessee country boy, and his wife was from a different culture: the reception took place at the James River Country Club in Newport News, Virginia.

It went very well: as interesting wedding, lots of fun stories, and a black tie reception. But, of course, I was working, so I was in clericals, not in black tie. And about, oh, 45 minutes into the reception, I realized there was somebody who was always at my elbow. It was my friend's cousin. My friend's cousin was interesting in and of himself. He had grown up in the country in west Tennessee, and decided he wanted to see the world. So he joined the Merchant Marine. And after serving a number of years in the Merchant Marine, he left the Merchant Marine, joined the Army, became a Ranger and served with honor in the Rangers. And he was at the wedding, not in black tie, but in full dress uniform. Now those of you that have served, understand that when I say full dress uniform, this was quite something. I looked at him and I said, “What's going on?” He said, “Well, you know, I see all these people around me and I'm just staying close to the guy who's in uniform.” 

When we talk about being in uniform in American culture and in American history, there's a certain expectation attached. Usually we talk about it as military service; but the fact is, is that we have a lot of different uniforms in our lives. And many of us have been in a uniform, if not in the armed services. Nurses still have uniforms. I mean, scrubs look a little bit different, but I can tell you that hospitals do things like have different colored scrubs on registered nurses versus licensed practical nurses versus nurse aides: a sense of a uniform. I served in a uniform for a number of years, not in the military, but because I was in marching band. And I remember my college uniform for the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band. Even more I remember my high school uniform because being a high school uniform - this was at Bearden in Knoxville - they had opted for a dual use uniform. It was basically a tux suit with a red vinyl overlay over it. And trust me, in late August and early September, there are a few things hotter than a red vinyl overlay laid over a wool suit.

So. I had my time in that uniform. Or,  you see me when I'm working Sunday mornings in clericals and that uniform. Many of us have some sense of what it is to be in a uniform, even if it's just a bowling shirt, because we want those things that being in uniform gives us. They identify us with a particular group. They give us a sense of solidarity with the other folks who are in uniform. Generally, they imply a certain skill or a certain training, even if it's just those highly visible t-shirts that the moms wear when they're the chaperones for the field trip. It’s for the people to be able to see them and come to them and ask them about things they are supposed to know about and be authorized and prepared to do - a lot of different kinds of uniforms. I miss actually when nurses wore caps, because most of you probably know each different educational institution for nurses had a distinctive cap. And back in the days when nurses wore caps, you could learn where a person got their education. A lot of things you got out of the uniform.

The author of Ephesians talks today about a uniform. I know it's armor, but if you think about it, it's a uniform. Those who wore armor didn't just wear armor when they were going into battle. They wore armor pretty much anytime they were on duty. And especially in Rome when so much of the work was civil unrest. You never knew when something was going to come up. They were in uniform and it was a uniform that would have been very familiar to Jesus's listeners. In fact, if you know much about armor or know much about the history of military service, you will remember that different groups at different times had different kinds of armor, different shapes of the breast plate, different shapes of the sword. You could identify who they fought for by what they wore, which in the middle of a crunch was really important. You wanted the right person at your shoulder, not the wrong person.

So the author of Ephesians, who, as I said last week, has been talking to us how to live in the presence of Christ in the world, talks about putting on armor to withstand the evil that besets us. And the evil that besets us, says the author of Ephesians, is not people. It’s not, as he said, enemies of flesh and blood. It's against rulers. It's against authorities. It's against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Some years ago there was an author, and I'll blank on his name for a few minutes, but the title of one of his book was The People of the Lie.It it was talking about demonic powers. I was a priest in Memphis at the time, and one of my colleagues did a book review of it for the other Episcopal clergy. And this colleague of mine said, “I’m much too educated and much too sophisticated to believe in demonic powers.” And I looked at a colleague of mine right next to me. He said, “I'm glad I'm not that sophisticated.” Depending on how you want to understand creation to be, you may or may not want to talk about personified expressions pursuing evil, but all of us will remember that there are forces that are a whole lot bigger than us, in the face of which we fear we have no control. And some of them seem to be doing people harm.

One of the commentators I listened to, a professor at Luther Seminary said that there are some people that say this is that idea of systemic problems. That is, the author of Ephesians is not just talking about - in fact, it's particularly not talking about - defending against individual sins, but against the waves of sinfulness that go through society, the waves that no one person is responsible for, but that we have some responsibility to meet. And that's one way to think about what this armor is about. It's about being prepared to meet, however you want to understand it, not just the wickedness of the person next door, (because as I used to say to nurses, I'll hear your confession. And if you're concerned about it, I'll match you sin for sin), but about, again, those things for which we trust in God’s support and work with God  because they certainly seem to be beyond us as individuals.

So we are called to be prepared for that. Not just thankfully on our own strength: the Greek of “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” Delmer Chilton says could be better understood as “be strengthened in the power of the Lord:” God working in us to do these things. And therefore God calls us to put on the uniform, to suit up, to put on the belt of truth and to be truthful, to put on the breastplate of righteousness, which means to do rightly. (That’s not an attitude of self righteousness. There's too blessed much of that around already.) To hold the shield of faith, to have on your feet whatever makes you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace - individually and as a community: St. Raphael's Episcopal Church. What is it that prepares us to proclaim the Gospel of peace? And then the sword, which is the Word. But note that again, this is about defending against evil. This is not about going out and beating anybody up. Being prepared, being in uniform, being in company, because all of these “you-s” are plural in the Greek -to take our place against those principalities and powers and authorities that on the one hand seem beyond our control and therefore we need God's strength for them; and on the other hand, we clearly see, they are doing harm.

The author of Ephesians calls us to put on the uniform and to become part of the company. Remember I said, that being in uniform is part of a team; part of being in a group; part of being identifiable in the group; and also part of being identifiable outside the group. The hardest part about putting on any uniform, not withstanding my experience in marching band, is not getting the suspenders. Those of you who served in the armed forces will appreciate, and  those of you who've ever been in marching band will appreciate the hardest part about being in uniform is the drill. It's the getting out and doing what you're supposed to do again and again and again and again, when you don't need it, so that you'll be prepared when you do need it. 

And that's a tough commitment. That's what we think people found tough about Jesus. He kept saying these odd things, and if you paid attention in the Gospel of John, with me preaching about it or somebody else, Jesus has a tendency in the Gospel of John to say some pretty interesting things. And scholars are not sure what it was that caused these people in this lesson to turn away; whether they were just at a gut level offended at Jesus's words, because remember I said in the Greek, Jesus is saying, “He who munches on my meat” when he says, “eat my flesh,” a very physical and tangible understanding of the Incarnation and also a very physical and tangible appreciation of what it means to be in Christ; or whether it got to them when he said, “Well, then what would it mean if you were to see the Son of Man returning to heaven?” That is, “Listen, I've been telling you all along: I'm God.” So I'm not sure which of those things or both of those things got those folks to say, “Who can keep this teaching,” because they weren't sure they were prepared to live with either of those things.

“That’s the drill,” Jesus said to the disciples. Now, you know there is a distinction here. We can think of the apostles as people that Jesus called versus the hangers on.  In John Jesus doesn't have a good opinion of the hangers on. He says, “You know, you're just here because I keep feeding people. You're just here because the miracles are exciting.” And when he says to the Twelve, “What about you,” they say something different. Peter says “There's no place else to go where we know there are the words of eternal life. We're willing to embrace you. We're willing to embrace that life.” They're willing. They commit to do the drill. 

So Ephesians calls us to this uniform that prepares us to be defended in the world against evil and, we hope, to help others in the world defend against evil, and not just our own individual sins, but against those things that are bigger than us, that we see doing harm. And Ephesians tells us that to do that, you take on a uniform, you take on a community, you take on a lifestyle, you take on the drill. We are those among those who say we're prepared to embrace that lifestyle and embrace that drill, to say with the Twelve that we know where are the words of eternal life. Very good. So, let's suit up!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wisdom: a Sermon for Proper 15, August 15, 2021

So, as I prepare my sermon for Proper 16, here is my sermon from last Sunday on Proper 15.

I am a big fan of teaching stories, especially middle Eastern Sufi and other teaching stories. This is one from the person I read most often, an Afghan Englishman named Idries Shah. He said that two men found themselves crossing a river on a ferry. This was an old ferry in an old country, and it was strung on ropes. And the ferrymen basically pulled the rope to get you from one side of the river to the other. So these two men were on the ferry. One of them was a professor of logic and rhetoric. And the other one, he was a local farmer. In the midst of their conversation, the rustic gentleman said, “Well, you know, if’n y'all were really prepared,” at which point the academic stopped him. He said, “Wait, no, there is only one of me. It has to be ‘you.’ And there is nothing to be added to ‘if. It’s not, ‘if’n,’ it’s just ‘if.’ If you haven't learned proper grammar, you've lost half your life.” At which point, the cables holding the ferry snapped, and the ferry began to rise on a rush of water and the head down river quickly. And the farmer said, “You know, professor, if’n y'all, hadn't learned how to swim, you've lost all your life.”

The theme today is wisdom. What is wisdom? And it's an interesting thing to think about, what we think of as wisdom or as wise. You know, we live in a time where a little owl appears on our TV screen and says that being wise has to do with taking the right antihistamine. (And as somebody with perpetual sinus issues, I pay attention.) Now, wisdom is something we talk about a lot in scripture. We say that there are portions of scripture that we speak about as “wisdom literature.” For example, that includes Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, or Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus is a favorite of mine.)

They are, as we say, about wisdom. And the wisdom they are about is how to live a proper and righteous life in the world. Now, granted, in all of this, walking before God, as it were, is assumed, but it's not really what they talk about very much. They talk about right relationship between one person and another, or right ways to fit in with the structures of society, or ways, if you can, to do well for yourself and others. You know, the, the content is somewhat different from Confucius, but the intent, if you will, is the same. This is how to live a righteous and sober and productive life in society. And, if you get the opportunities, to do well. 

We still talk about wisdom today. Unfortunately it seems to me to have a bit of a different edge. It’s more personal; it's more selfish. It's less about having a successful life and more about winning - and all too often winning at any and all costs: you know, weakest to the wall and the devil take the hindmost. “I've got mine, and you have to look after yours.” We're told by voices around us, that “wise” means, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

But in the lessons today, we have a different standard for what is “wise.” It's in Ephesians. We’ve been in Ephesians for the last few Sundays, and the last half of Ephesians is all about what it means to live in Christian community. And there's a bit of a summation, if you will, in today's lesson, because it says to be careful - or more accurately, be thoughtful, be attentive  - to live in the world as wise rather than unwise, That has to do, Ephesians tells us, with understanding what the will of the Lord is.

So, in Ephesians, it's clear that living wisely is understanding and participating what the will of the Lord is. And perhaps that shouldn't be that hard for us. I don't mean it's not hard to do. Sometimes it is. But I mean, it shouldn’t be hard for us to have a handle on this idea of living with what the will of the Lord is. That is because we are people who say the Lord is not just coming. We say the Lord is with us. That’s all through the Gospel of John, and I’ll get back to today’s lesson in a minute. But it is in John that Jesus keeps saying eternal life is now. This is not something you wait for. Life in the kingdom is already ongoing. And we are the spiritual descendants of that. To live by understanding what the will of the Lord is begins with understanding that the Lord is present here and now.

One of my favorite spiritual writers focused on that. Perhaps some of you will know of him, Brother Lawrence at the Incarnation whose collected works were published as The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was an interesting character. He was a Carmelite monk in Paris, and he was a sculler. You've heard of a scullery maid: He was a sculler brother. He worked in the kitchen. He cleaned vegetables. He hauled out the trash. He wasn't even the cook. And also, he was so recognized by his order as being wise, so wise that he was in a number of cases the ambassador of his order to the civil authorities or the ambassador of his chapter to other houses of the Carmelites. And in fact he was a famous spiritual director in his own time. And his focus was on practicing the presence of God. That is, “If I operate with the assumption that God is with me right now, then how should I behave in light of that?” You know, we have that old joke, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” But Brother Lawrence was really focused on the concept that Jesus is here; and it's not about looking busy, but it is about participating in what it is that Jesus and God and the Spirit have going on in the world around you.

In his way, that's exactly what Solomon asked for. David has died. By the way, I can't tell you how many commentaries and podcasts I listened to this week that said, “Let’s stop using a euphemism. David didn't sleep. He died.” However, to say “he slept with his ancestors” means that he died at peace. He didn't die in war. He didn't die because he was smitten. He died of old age. 

So, David died. And because Bathsheba who had been a victim had also learned how to be a sharp political person, Solomon, who was not the oldest son, becomes king. And so King Solomon is offering sacrifices. He’s offering sacrifice at Gibeon. And he has a vision, a dream, that’s really a message from God. God says, “How shall I equip you?” And Solomon says, “What I really need is the wisdom to lead, to lead this people who are yours.” Now, capture that. It's not that he's simply leading Israel, his kingdom, but he is leading the people who are God's people and is asking to be part of God's will for that people. So as with Brother Lawrence, Solomon is in the presence of God; and he’s thinking wisdom is about how does he, as king, participate in the will of God.

If you read the rest of Solomon's story, you'll discover that he's pretty spotty about actually doing that, but it's the right prayer. And God says it's the right prayer. And he says, “There will be no one of wisdom ever like you after nor has there been anyone before.”

 So we have clear guidance in our own tradition and in scripture about this idea that to be wise is to seek the will of the Lord. And it shouldn't be that hard for us to understand what the will of the Lord might be. Now, never claim perfection in this. I have this personal conceit. I believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven is certainty. Always hold a little bit of humility. I'm bad at that myself, but always hold a little bit of humility about one’s sense of what God is doing. 

But we have plenty of guidance in the Gospel of John. We know about God's commitment to God's people because the Word became flesh to live with us;  because the Word came, as in my favorite passage from John, John 3:17, God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved through him. That the Incarnation is about bringing salvation into and among all of creation. And Jesus in today's lesson brings that Incarnation home because what the Greek says is, “those who munch on my meat.” We don't like to translate it that way, but this is different in the Greek from other places where he talks about eating flesh. It's a different word for eat. It's a different word for flesh. It is those who are “those who are chewing my muscle tissue abide in me and I in them:” that God's will, is that all of us and all of creation be so intimately involved in God and in what God is doing that salvation embraces all. And when I worry about what "all" means, I always come back to another passage of John and the Good Shepherd where he says, “and remember that I've got sheep you won't recognize. But when I call them, they will come.” All, all, all.

So to be wise is to participate, as best we can, in our own circumstances and in our own moments, with the will of God; that the love of God should be so demonstrated in how we live, that we share that sense of God's purpose to embrace all people and all creation in salvation. That is what Ephesians tells us wisdom really is. 

So, we have that standard to live by. We are called, not to be careful because we're afraid, but to be observant and careful and particular about living wisely. We are committed to live in a world of wisdom where wisdom is to seek to understand and to seek to participate in what the will of the Lord is. That in and of itself will bring us sufficient joy that the alcohol won't be necessary; sufficient joy, that we will be singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs. If we are going to live, we are called to live as those who are wise which means we're seeking to understand and to participate as fully as we can in what the will of the Lord is.