Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Parable of the Sower

                                          
            The New Yorker has an article this week about the state of Texas and how its legislature is in many ways a mirror of what is going on all over this country.  There is a core of right-wing zealots who want to take over the state.  One of their leaders is the Lieutenant Governor who is also the president of the Senate.  This man is an outspoken evangelical Christian who looks at all of the political action in the state through the eyes of his particular Christian faith. His faith is composed of a lot of rules that he wants to enforce by law.  He is a rich man with resources that are adequate to his needs.  His is the kind of politics that we are seeing on a national level.  I saw a car with a series of faith related bumper stickers on it that also carried a Trump/Pence sticker.  I was certain of the origin of the owner’s politics, it was rooted in the certainty of his faith.

            We all have faith related politics.  Most of us are not as certain as others.  Most of us would not claim that somehow God got Donald Trump or Barack Obama on the ballot.  We all know that we have a responsibility for all of this; to not only elect, but also be responsible for those whom we elect and for what they do when they are in office.  This is mostly a kind of a tricky problem.  We don’t always agree with our elected leaders or with each other, even if we were part of the voting block that elected them.  We know that all of us are responsible for what goes on in this country; and one end or the other of the political spectrum is only a part of the answer at any given moment.

            Jesus tried to describe our political and moral problems to us in his intricate and helpful parable of the sower.  He speaks to a gathered crowd by the sea, sitting in a boat.  He talked of the way that God’s love comes to humanity.  If God is the sower and God’s love is the seed that is sown, it comes to us in different ways.   If we are the ones who receive it as it falls on the path, then it evaporates before we can do much of anything with it.  If we receive it as the seed on rocky ground, it lasts as long as it causes us no trouble; but the minute that we are threatened by the love that our God has lavished on us, we shy away.  When we receive it as the seed that falls among the thorns, we simply take that love and integrate it with all of our other concerns.  Sometimes, we make it seem to be primary as we use it to laud the things that are really on our mind.  I think that this is what is going on with the absolute religious community who want us all to think that their political certainties are coming as the voice of God.  When we receive God’s love as the seed that fell on fertile ground, we take it and integrate it into ourselves.  We learn, as Jesus taught us to love each other with the same zeal that God has lavished on us.  We make the world better because of our love. 

            I had a good friend who was a priest in this diocese named Lynn Chester Edwards who had his own set of health and other problems.  In the process of his ministry, he created the Shepherd Wellness Community; a religious organization that was designed to help anyone with problems to get over them and to get back to their communities. He did this because of the love that he felt had been given to him by God.  He was sometimes lauded for this work, but mostly he kept it in the background.  He was one of the interim priests who served after I retired from Christ Church, North Hills and he made a loving impression on the people of that parish.  He died a short time ago and we deeply miss his life and his work. 

            He is a perfect example of what our Lord means by the seed that falls on fertile ground.  Lynn took the love that he had been given and shared it with others.  He never got rich, he never attained a high rank, or anything else.  He was simply a good priest doing God’s work in a world that needed that work desperately.  That is why God loves all of us; so that we can lavish that love on others.  There are so many people who have not received that love.  It is up to all of us to see that they do.  It is really the way to make this world a much better place, so that as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May God bless us as we do our best to spread that love.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Mission of the Church

             There is probably nothing more impressive than watching someone give up their own agenda and take care of someone who is hurting.  I’ve seen this a number of times and it always makes me humble and joyful at the same time.  Jesus came to us to help us with our burdens.  He promised to make lives easier and more meaningful.  In Matthew’s gospel, he tells us to come to him, all who are carrying heavy burdens and he will give us rest.  That is a beautiful statement and the essence of the ministry that Jesus brought to this world.  It isn’t the rich and the prominent who need the care that Jesus offers, it is the downtrodden and the poor who need his work the most.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to that ministry first and foremost.  Our job is to take care of each other; to look out for those who are hurting and oppressed and to do what we can to make their lives better.  When we do that, we are spreading Jesus’ love into the world.

            When we go downtown to the theater or to a sporting event, there are always people on the street trying to get the crowds attention.  They have signs talking about hunger and being homeless and other problems.  They are only a small portion of those who are hurting in our community.  I know that I can’t fix very much of it, but I try to do something for those people who are asking.  I am always being told not to do it because they will probably take the money and go buy booze or drugs with it.  I reply that after I give the money, it doesn’t belong to me anymore and whatever they do with it is their option.  Focusing on the worst that people are and what they do doesn’t help much.  It only prolongs the pain.  Yes, sometimes the money that we give goes to simply continue the problem; but we have no real way of knowing that. There was one man in Washington DC who pounded on my car window and said: “Preacher, give me ten dollars so that I can go into this liquor store and get me a bottle!”  I drove right on. I know that I didn’t help him at all, but I was terrified. When we really want to help, the gifts that we give come from our hearts and are intended to help.  That is really the beginning of honest help.

            Jesus wasn’t really appreciated for who he was and what he brought to humanity.  As he says in the lesson from Matthew, John came neither eating or drinking and they say he has a demon.  The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say: Look a drunk and a glutton”
All that the establishment saw in Jesus was trouble.  He called them on their hypocrisy and their treatment of those who were poor. He called his disciples to watch a poor woman putting a small mite in a collection box and commented that she had given more than any of the rich people who were calling on the poor to give.  He was impressed with her willingness and desire.  More is not necessarily better.  It is intention that means everything.  

            Jesus created our mission as a church to provide care in this world and he also provided for us a way to measure what we are doing.  The important thing is to care for those who have less and to provide comfort for those who are in distress.  When we do that, we are continuing Jesus’ mission on this earth.  That is why the church exists.

           


                       
            

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Our Christian Mission

   
            I have never liked the story of Abraham taking Isaac to Mount Moriah at the urging of God and to there offer him as a sacrifice.  I know that it was simply a test, to see how Abraham would respond and if he indeed would obey God at all costs.  It seems to me that God tested Abraham at the beginning by requiring him to go from Ur to the vicinity of Jerusalem and again when he told him that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  He also tested him when he gave Sarah and Abraham a son at their old age.  Why is it necessary now to see whether or not Abraham is obedient?  God certainly had plenty of evidence of this great man’s loyalty.

            Sin is certainly a constant in our lives.  Paul tells us not to sin willingly because our sins will be forgiven, even if that is certainly the case.  What God gave to all of humanity in the gift of his only Son Jesus is the constant of forgiveness.  That God’s love for all of us is stronger than any attempt that we might make to make gods of ourselves.  I am heartened by this wonderful information because of the age that we are living in where bombast and arrogance seem to be the political means at work.  Looking back at history, this has probably always been the case.  Attila, Alexander, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were all arrogant and narcissistic and they produced a great deal of injury in this world.  Through perseverance and care, these people were all defeated and better cultures took their places.  We still have people like this trying to rule the world; but it seems clear to me that this is not the way of God.  The tyrants in our midst will all find that their way is not God’s way and they will not ultimately prevail.

            When I look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I see a deeply Godly man who lived a life of constant love.  He taught, healed, forgave and moved his world forward.  He created a group of followers who took his life and his teachings into the world to continue his work.  Jesus eventually lost his ministry and his life to those who thought that they were superior to him.  The people who ruled the church and the society conspired to shut down his work by arresting him, trying him and crucifying him.  This was their way of dealing with a threat to their arrogant work.  The wonderful ending of this story is the resurrection of Jesus and his appearance to his disciples and sending them into the world to continue his work.  All of those disciples, except John lost their lives also, but the love, the care and the forgiveness that Jesus brought into this world continues today in the work of the church universal.  God’s love prevails.

            Our mission as Christians is to continue that work.  To look at this world through God’s eyes and to see the pain and the suffering that is all around us.  Politicians don’t do that.  They look for the place where votes will emerge and keep them in office.  It is up to those of us who love God to do what is necessary in this world to alleviate the pain that is so obvious to us, if not to our elected leaders.  God’s gifts to us are numerous.  We are loved and we are forgiven.  There is not much more that we need.  Those who suffer need more.  They need our caring for them to help to take their suffering away.  This is the gift that we can give back to God for the incessant love that has so graciously given to all          

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Building Great Nations

  We live in a curious time.  People attacking Muslims has all of a sudden become an issue in this world.  There was a driver in London who plowed into a group of Muslims who came out of their mosque after prayer.  This was denounced, but not by all.  There is a strange willingness to allow this kind of thing to happen in this world.  It is probably because of the horror of 9/11 that many Americans have come to see Muslims as an enemy, and we have been conducting several wars in the Middle East in nations where Muslims are the primary population.  It is no wonder that some people think of these people as our enemy. 

            I am impressed with the lesson from Genesis that speaks of the birth of Ishmael to Hagar, who had been Abraham’s servant woman.  Abraham is the father of Ishmael as he is also the father to Isaac by Sarah.  The interesting thing about this lesson is that after Abraham casts Hagar out at Sarah’s insistence, she and Ishmael go into the desert to live.  When the water supply gives out, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush and cries out to God for help.  Without much of a pause, God answers Hagar and assures her that a great nation will be raised up around Ishmael just as another nation will be raised up around Isaac.  I have always looked at this lesson as God’s blessing on the nation of Islam which grew up after the Hebrew people grew up in Israel and Judah and after the birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

            Obviously, there were more people in this world that God wanted to save, to have conversation with and to send out to inform the world about God’s love.  It is no wonder that there are so many religions in this world.  We have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and many others; all of them talking about the great love that God rains upon this world and the people in it.  We are foolish when we think that we are the only ones who believe in God.  Our religious prejudices denounce us whenever they boil to the surface.
                       
            Yes, there are problems with our belief systems.  We make the worst mistake when we think that ours is the best or the only one that really speaks of God and God’s perfect love.  Within denominations, there are great arguments over liturgy and even the substance of some of the beliefs.  When we changed prayer books in the Episcopal church, there were lots of people who were angry at the changes.  We still have rumblings about this. 

              I have been fortunate to be a part of discussions with groups including many different religious persuasions and I have seen the wonder that these people can do when they cooperate.  We hurt, not help when we allow our religious preferences to dominate our lives and prevent us from understanding how God can be understood in other ways by other people.                                 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Hearing the Voice of God

              
             How do you hear God’s voice?  That probably sounds like a stupid question, but I think that it is an important one.  I’ve always loved the story of Elijah fleeing from the wrath of the Samaritans Ahab and Jezebel in First Kings.  He gets to a cave and goes inside to be safe.  God asks him what he is doing there. He answers him and then listens for God’s voice to tell him what to do.   Elijah listens and listens.  There is a strong wind, but God is not in the wind; then there is fire, but God is not in the fire.  Elijah then experiences an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  Then he hears what is called a “still, small voice.”  I think that is often how we hear the voice of God in our own lives.  Just a whisper, or sometimes a voice in our dreams.  For me, God’s voice sometimes comes to me through other people.  A friend will say something to me that is so profound and insightful that I know that I must listen to what they are saying. 

            God’s voice is usually directing me toward something that is wrong in this world; to take care of people who are in some kind of distress or cast out of our society in some way.  It sometimes amazes me that I haven’t seen this myself, but then, God is our creator and our overseer who has all of this world in sight and cares deeply about all of us.  God’s perfect love extends to each and every one of us.  We are all capable and called to be God’s servants and to do what needs to be done.  God’s prophets did this.  Amos went into the North and chastised the rich people there for selling the poor for silver and treating the needy like a crop to be reaped for their own benefit.  God looking out for the poor is a constant theme in scripture.

            There is nothing new here.  Our political system still tries as hard as it can to reward the rich and tax the poor.  The current republican health care bill is being created behind closed doors in the senate so as not to attract detrimental comments.  They are not asking for any help by the democrats because they know that this will only bring criticism.  The problem here is that the bill is an attempt to eliminate coverage for many poor people and to enable people with means to have even more.  We as disciples of Jesus Christ are called by God to keep this kind of thing from happening and to make sure that those who have nothing can benefit from our common purse.

            I have been a priest for over forty years and I know how the church can consume itself with non-essential trivia.  People in some congregations and dioceses are great at blaming one another for the things that inevitably go wrong.  What we all need to be doing is caring for each other and making sure that all is well in the lives of those who aren’t as well off as the rest of us. When we do that, we are hearing God’s quiet voice urging us on. But there are other congregations that focus on outreach – on taking care of the need that exists all around us.  These are the places where God is working in this world and his disciples are those people in those parishes who listen for the word and follow where it leads them.

            We all get very tired of listening to the news reports of what is going on in the political life of this country.  It all sounds like blame and excuse and people always trying to show themselves in the best possible light.  What is lost in all of this is the constant presence of need and pain in this world.  The people begging in our streets, at our bridges and intersections trying to get some contributions that will help their lives don’t particularly care about the politics.  They don’t even vote, mostly.  They simply are trying to find ways of getting through their day.  Those of us who are politically involved sometimes miss the point when we spend so much time with our political striving that we miss the obvious times to simply give of ourselves to help those who are obviously poor. 

             

             
  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Doubt and Certainty

            After the resurrection, Jesus went to Galilee.  On a hill, he summoned his disciples.  All of them went to him, but there is a wonderful statement in that passage from Matthew 28.  It says, some doubted.  Some doubted!  That sounds almost incredible to me.  These are the same people who were in the upper room when Jesus appeared to them, showed them his wounds and was obviously alive and risen from the tomb.  That some could doubt after all of this is somehow remarkable. 

            Doubt is a part of faith.  I have known this all of my life.  They are often stated as opposites, but the real enemy of faith is certainty.  Doubt is what moves us to faith.  When his fellow disciples told Thomas about Jesus appearing to them, he said that unless he put his fingers in the nail wounds in his hands and his hand in the wound in his side, he wouldn’t believe.  He has been called “doubting Thomas” ever since.  In that case, I’m “doubting Rodge”.  It isn’t easy to believe in the resurrection;  we’ve never seen one; but the gospels testify to the reality of Jesus rising from the dead after his cruel crucifixion.  His rising from the dead tells us that our own lives will be eternal.  That also is not an easy concept to believe.  Again, we’ve never seen one.  The greatest gift that our Lord gave to humankind is the truth of resurrection.  That when we die, our lives are not over; that we will simply continue to live as one of God’s created beings forever.

           I know that most of you have been to a number of funerals?  The absence of the loved one who is the reason for the service is a reality.  The people who have been left behind fill the pews and the members of the family weep and are comforted by others.  The prayers and the homily all remind us of the goodness of the person who has died and we all come to understand the importance of the life that has been lived and why we miss the deceased.  I have stood in the aisle next to a casket at funerals and have wished that I could somehow do a resurrection like Jesus did in Bethany when Lazarus died.  I wish that I could do this for the benefit of the people mourning.  I would love to give them something to erase the loss from their lives.  I have never been able to do that, but I have been able to comfort those people with love and understanding.  That is to me what faith is all about. 

            When it comes to certainty, there are a lot of examples that we have seen.  I remember George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to keep a black student out, so absolutely convinced that his white skin gave him privileges that those people of color couldn’t claim.  I listened to Franklin Graham’s prayer at the 9/11 memorial service that blamed all Muslims for that tragedy and he made my stomach turn.  I’ll never forget Pat Robertson’s grinning claim that he had turned a hurricane away from the Virginia coast with his conjuring.  These folks have attracted crowds because of their claims of certainty.  When I listen to Jesus’ apostles talking about their faith, the only certainty that emerges is after they have seen the risen Christ.  Their eyes simply glow with the knowledge that this brings to them about resurrection and life in eternity with God. I have had times of certainty in my own life.  As I remember them these were times when I was sometimes spectacularly wrong.  I hope that my ability to doubt remains strong in my life.  It feeds my faith.

           

           
                         

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Compassion and Justice

            Before I went to seminary, I was given a book by a theologian, whose name I can’t remember.  After reading several chapters, I decided that the book was incomprehensible to me at that moment and I put it down.  I hoped that I would find something more credible as I pursued my studies.  I certainly did.  I had Charles Price as my teacher of theology at Virginia Seminary.  His lectures were always inspiring and helped me to understand the complexity of the relationship that humans have with God.  I remember that when Dr. Price delivered his final lecture that the class responded with a standing ovation.  He taught me to love and value theology.

            While I was learning in seminary, I was introduced to a number of authors whose work has continued to be a welcome part of my reading.  One of those is Marcus Borg, who died a couple of years ago, but who left a long list of impressive works and who has shaped my faith and my understanding of the way that God has interacted with humanity and with me over the years.

            Marcus Borg in his writing about Christianity speaks of two elements that Jesus constantly showed to the world with his life and ministry.  These are compassion and justice. By justice, he doesn’t mean criminal justice, but social justice; the effort to insure that everyone is fairly treated by the culture.  When I look at the life of Jesus, these were his constant driving concerns.  Every time that he found someone in need, his response was to care and to help.  He gave sight back to the man born blind even though the chief priests and the Pharisees denounced him for it.  He raised Lazarus from the dead, even though his own grief at his friend’s death caused him to weep at the grave.   

            When we were in San Diego recently, I bought Marcus Borg’s final book Days of Awe and Wonder.  It is a collection of his wonderful writings along with a copy of the eulogy that The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor delivered at his funeral.  He has always been my favorite theologian.  He speaks of Jesus and his life and ministry in simple, easily understood ways.  He has helped my education immensely.  He is a Scandinavian, born and raised in North Dakota.  He became the Canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon where his wife serves as a priest.  His book again lays out his view of Christianity as being about compassion and social justice. He means by this not only caring for the poor and the outcast, but also for the planet.  Environmental efforts are also needed if we are going to extend and practice our faith. 

            Borg helps us to understand the other religions in this world.  He helps us to see how it is that Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist doctrine are also ways that God has chosen to enter this world and our lives.  His writings can help us with our prejudices and give us welcome companionship with those of other faiths who are also trying to understand how our relationship with God helps us to understand this world and its complexity.   I am always gratified when I see cooperation between religious bodies.  Our work isn’t all that different.  Our religion is God’s way to help us to understand mission as our common work.  I certainly don’t care if the missions in our city are run by Episcopalians, Methodists, Jewish or Muslim groups.  The important thing is that the work gets done.  Every parish has its outreach efforts.  When these efforts are combined with other people doing much the same thing, great strides are made in making lives better across the board. 

            My pastoral work is always involved with the needs that people have.  I have taken communion to many individuals who couldn’t make it to church because they were sick.  I know that it helps them when I do that.  It also has the effect of binding the community closer together.  We aren’t just a congregation who gather to worship; we are a community who cares for each other.  That is how religion works in our common life.

            Borg’s work has made a profound difference in my ministry and in my life.  I thank God for his wisdom and his remarkable ability to pass it on to the rest of us.