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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Retiring for the Fourth Time

            I have loved being here at Atonement for the past couple of years.  My preaching in this place has become a part of my life.  You have nourished me with your wonderful Christian activity.  This is a powerful parish and I want you to continue in the same way to do the good that you continue to do.  You are the ministers of this parish. 

            We had a fabulous experience last week.  We were celebrating Rosie’s 80th birthday and we went down to Station Square to take a ride on the Ducky Tour, the boat/trucks that go around Pittsburgh and sometimes get on the rivers.  The rivers were too high, so it was only a land journey.  Before we got on the boat, we were all standing around waiting.  Our granddaughter Lindy was watching her phone with a Facetime call from our youngest daughter Heather, her mom.  We thought it was wonderful to include her in this way since she lives in San Diego.  Rosie noticed that Heather seemed to be bobbing up and down while she was talking. We thought maybe she was in a car or something.  All of a sudden, Heather came upon us and we discovered that she had flown back east to help us celebrate Rosie’s birthday. 

            On Wednesday, Rosie and I will fly out to San Diego to spend a week with Heather.  We have been looking forward to this for some time and it will mean a lot to us to be able to do it.  We will come back home after a week out there and we will continue to live in our home and get into a summer routine.  I thank God that I have had the opportunity to be with you all of this time.  You have helped me in so many ways.  We are fortunate people to have been here at Atonement.

            In our Gospel this morning, Jesus continues to tell his apostles about what is to come; how he is going to be with the Father. They don’t really have any understanding of this at all. He tells them again that he will not leave them without company; that the Holy Spirit will be a part of their lives from that moment on.  He says that those who love him will keep his commandments and that they will be loved by the Father and will not be alone because the Spirit of Truth will be a constant part of their lives.  This is true for us also.  We have celebrated Easter, have once again celebrated the feast that helps us to remember our resurrected Lord.  As he told his disciples, Jesus did not leave us orphaned and alone either.  When we keep Jesus’ commandments, we also have the presence of the Spirit with us.  And those commandments can become an excellent foundation to our way of life.  Jesus outlined them in his Sermon on the Mount, but gave us the ultimate key when he told us to Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as a person like ourselves.  That sums up the commandments that our Lord gave us.  This is what creates peace and hope in the world.

             It isn’t always easy to do.  Loving difficult people is always a problem.  We all have had that experience.  I had a man in one of my parishes who frequently yelled at me.  It was sometimes about something in a sermon, sometimes, just something that was bothering him.  It was always difficult talking to him.  Years later, I got a long letter from him explaining to me that he had been fighting alcoholism and that he wanted to apologize for his behavior.  It was gratifying to me to read that letter.  The simple fact about loving one another that we can’t always do it ourselves is just another indication that what God wants for us all is community; the joining together of all of us to create loving relationships in this world.

            This is something that Atonement has learned to do very well.  You take care of each other when you have problems.  The coffee hour downstairs after church is a wonderful place to share our lives and to listen to each other.  It isn’t only a place to taste the latest goodies, it is a place to continue the community that we celebrate around this altar.

            The most important part is that we take this expression of community with us into our lives and work to care for the people whom we meet.  That is why the outreach efforts of this place mean so much.  There is an old saying that it doesn’t matter so much what we say, but what is important is what we do.  Our religion is what we say.  Our outreach is what we do because of it.

            Religion can be a very complicated activity.  That is why there are so many denominations in this world.  That is what prompted the split in the Diocese a few years ago.  It was a time when some people tried to make rules for everyone else.  Our liturgy is helpful to our faith, but it is not the essence of it.  Love is the essence of our faith. When Paul was in Athens, he told the people that they had a monument with an inscription that read “to the unknown God”.  Paul told them that he came to tell them about that God, who made Heaven and earth.  He quoted the Greek poets who said about God that in him we all live and move and have our being.  He then told them about Jesus who came and gave his life for all of us and then rose from the dead to assure us of eternal life.

            The essence of our faith is how we live our lives; and living our lives with the love that we have been taught by our Lord is all that we need to do.  Accepting and caring for the people whom we meet in this life is what we are sent to do as our ministry.

            Yes, I’m retiring for the fourth time in my life, but I won’t be far away.  As I have told some of you, I will be here when you need me.  In the meantime, continue to be one of the best parishes in this diocese and do all that you can to make sure that this world is full of love.

            May God bless you all.  You are one of the best things that has ever happened to me. We will never forget our time at Atonement. 

                         

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fear and Grieving

             Fear can be a terrible thing.  It can interrupt our day, make anything that we are doing more difficult.  It needs to be confronted and put to rest, but often that is a very hard thing to do.

            Jesus disciples were haunted by fear after their Lord was arrested, condemned and crucified by the religious authorities and by Pontius Pilate. The gospel for today is an earlier conversation, but it describes all of this.  It is a clear statement by Jesus that we will follow him into eternity.  His disciples didn’t understand that.  Notice that he begins his conversation with them by saying do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me; words said to his disciples because of their obvious fear.  I can understand how they felt.  Their Lord was talking about leaving them and they were afraid of what would come next.  How would they be treated by the Sadducees and the Pharisees?  Would they be caught?  Would they then face death? 

            After the resurrection when they were all behind closed doors as the gospel said, for fear of the Jews.  It is then that the resurrected Jesus appears to them and showed them his wounds, but he was obviously present.  At that moment, their fear turned to joy and they knew that their work was not in vain and that they would continue the work that they had all started together.
           
             I love this morning’s gospel.  I want it to be read at my funeral.  It speaks eloquently of the truth of eternal life and the incredible mercy that Jesus offers to all of us after our death.  It has the obvious intent of confronting and allaying our fears.  It isn’t necessary to be afraid of dying.  It is a perfectly natural thing that we will all experience.  The difficulty that it presents is that of leaving our family and our friends and not being with them anymore.  That is why we grieve.  Grief is an important emotion.  It speaks clearly of the love that we have for each other and the loss that we feel at the time of death.  Our grief is why we come together at funerals to care for each other.  Our compassion and caring goes a long way to overcoming the worst of our grieving.  I have seen that happen countless times in my ministry.  When families gather to mourn a death with their friends and relatives, it makes a profound difference.  Surprisingly, the most frequent sound that you will hear in a funeral home is laughter.  It comes from people telling stories about the deceased and sharing their own personal moments.  That is a beautiful thing.

            What Jesus is telling his disciples is that his ministry won’t be over, even if he dies.  He tells them that they will go into the world and do greater things than he has done.  That he will be with them always and that they will never be alone.  The key to this is what Jesus calls belief.  Believe in God, he tells them, believe also in me! He goes on to tell them that even if they don’t believe in him, look at the works that he has done and to believe in them.  He tells them that they will go on to do greater works than these.  And so they did.  There are many stories of the disciples healing and bringing life to people who had no hope. 

            After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter begins to confront the Pharisees about the way that they are treating people.  He is no longer afraid of them.  This became true of all of Jesus’ followers.  Eventually, they all died, but before that, they formed and developed a wonderful Christian community that spread the word of God throughout the countryside. 

            In the Epistle today, we have the story of the stoning of the first martyr Stephen with Saul, later named Paul, holding the coats of the stoners.  With his last breath, the dying Stephen prays to God not to hold this sin against any of those who are killing him.  We all know what happened shortly after to Saul, how he was stopped on the road to Damascus, blinded and called out by the risen Christ when he says to Saul:  Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?  The blind Saul, then renamed Paul was sent into Damascus to see a man named Annanias who cured him of his blindness and set him on the course that we know so well through his letters.  Paul the apostle who had never met Jesus in the flesh became a powerful promoter of the Christian cause.

            That is how the church continued down the centuries.  We are the latest edition of the followers of Christ.  We are sent into the world to make life better for those whom we meet.  God loves all of us and all of them.  What we do for them is the nature of Christian ministry.  Making fear go away is a great part of our work.  Believe in God, believe also in Jesus.  That is the key both to this life and the next.

            

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Our Good Shepherd

               I’ve always loved the Twenty-third psalm.  It is so deeply personal and talks about the Love of God in such a wonderful way.  I remember when I was a kid wondering what it meant by telling me that when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death that I would fear no evil because God is with me, his rod and his staff comfort me. That is good news, but to a kid, I wasn’t sure of what it all meant.  As I got older, the message got a little clearer. I came to understand that this means that God meets us in the world where we live, where terrible things sometimes happen and that we are not left only to hurt by what happens to us.   When I had surgery, and wasn’t sure how it was going to come out, I remember praying that psalm and finding comfort in it.  Eternal life didn’t mean much to me when I was a child, but it came to mean a lot to me as an adult.

            The Lord is my shepherd is a breathtaking statement.  Thinking of the whole human race as a flock of sheep is helpful.  Particularly when I think that Jesus is the shepherd.  I love the stories that we hear of our Lord’s ministry during his life; how he raised Lazarus, healed the man born blind, gave the Samaritan woman at the well back her life and her community.  If that is the shepherd that takes care of me, then I am satisfied beyond conversation.  Notice that the people whom Jesus met were not perfect people; they all had bad experiences.   

            There are other kinds of shepherding.  When Rosie and I were driving through the Native American tribal areas in the Southwest, we would occasionally see a herd of sheep being led by a dog.  No shepherd was present, only a dog.  The sheep obviously trusted the dog, but all of this worried me.  It just didn’t seem very safe.  You and me, as the sheep of the Lord are not led by a dog, but by the Son of God who came that we might have all that life can offer and who by his death and resurrection has given to you and me the forgiveness of our sins and the certainty of eternal life.  I can’t imagine a better gift for all of us.

            In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how the followers of Jesus, after their grief at his death and their surprise at his resurrection were still able to continue his ministry in the life of the people who became the church.  They met together, pooled their resources and made life better for everyone. Some people have said that this sounds a lot like communism, but if it is communism it is created in the best way, to help people who have nothing to live their lives to the fullest.  This certainly worked because more and more people came to be baptized and to join them in their work.  This is the real story of the church; how it began and how it continued.  That it has had times of strife and trouble in its long life is not surprising, given the nature of humanity; but we have the continuing promise of our Lord that the things that we want the most: forgiveness, salvation and eternal life with God will be ours; and they are ours because of the relentless shepherding of our Lord Jesus who gave his whole life to insure the care of the people whom he met on this earth.

            Our mission as Christians is to continue this ministry.  To make available to people who have little or nothing the hope that Jesus brought to earth.  We need to show by the way that we live our lives that the promises that our Lord made to all of us mean something to us.  All of us have sinned and fallen short.  There is no argument about that.  We are not excluded from the love and the promises of God because of our sins.  Our sins are forgiven and our crooked road is made straight for us by the incomprehensible love of God.  I have watched as people in prison have come to understand that new life is possible for them even after committing horrible crimes.  The largest problem that we have with the people who are in prison is our prison system.  We call it the Department of Corrections, when it is not that at all, it is the Department of Incarceration. Or even better yet, the Criminal Justice system. The people who are incarcerated are constantly made to understand that they are criminals – that they have lost their claim to humanity by the crimes that they have committed.  I was appalled to see what Arkansas tried to do by executing eight prisoners before their supply of one of the drugs expired at the end of this month.  Humanity doesn’t leave when people enter prison.  Correction and forgiveness is the goal. When I have seen forgiveness work miracles in the prison system it is because somehow the inmate has come to understand that forgiveness means that the crimes are no more, the only thing left is the promise of living a life in the peace of God. 

            That is what we are asked to do by our Lord.  As his sheep to follow him into this chaotic world and to help those who are here and wounded by all that it is that happens that they are loved by their God and by all of us.  When we do that, we extend the sheepfold infinitely and help our neighbors to understand the incredible totality of God’s perfect love.

           

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Power of the Eucharist

      There is a wonderful prayer that I say every Sunday when I am behind the altar celebrating the Eucharist.  It starts by recalling the moment in the Last Supper when Jesus took the bread, held it up and told his disciples:  This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.  After supper, he took the cup of wine and said to them:  Drink you all of this. This is my blood which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  As often as you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.  This prayer has been with us for two thousand years, helping us to understand that when we receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are receiving the body and blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

            Eucharist is an important moment in our worship.  In this place, it is available for any of you.  You don’t need a ticket to participate.  God’s love is here and now and it is for all of us.  We don’t need to be a part of a special group to receive it.  All of this is made clear by the Gospel of Luke in the story of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who meet a man on the road whom they don’t know.  They are a bit astounded that he doesn’t seem to know what has gone on in the last couple of days – how Jesus the prophet was betrayed by the religious establishment, given over to Pilate the governor, tried and crucified.  Now they say that some women have said that the tomb is empty and that they don’t know what has happened to Jesus’ body.  The stranger went on to explain the scriptures to them and point out every place in them where the Son of God is present.  When they get to the place where they were going, the stranger seems to want to continue his travel, but they invite him to come and to break bread with them.  Jesus does so and in the context of the meal, breaks the bread and drinks the wine and all of a sudden, he is made known to them as the risen Christ.  He then disappears and they go on with their lives, amazed at what they have seen. 

            The other thing that strikes me about this story is that it begins by saying that two of Jesus’ disciples were on the road to Emmaus. One of them is named Cleopas.  Cleopas is not a name that I am familiar with and it suggests to me that our normal understanding of twelve disciples may need to be expanded a bit.  Jesus had the last supper with the twelve that we know, and this post resurrection supper with two who may have been left out of some of the other stories.  This is unimportant, but it tells me that the number of the disciples has grown and continues to grow.  It also amazes me a bit that none of the women are mentioned as a part of those who attended the Last Supper.  Elsewhere in the story, the women are prominent, certainly at the crucifixion and at the resurrection, it is the women who made the most difference.  The men had drifted away.  But here are two new men who carry the story of meeting the risen Christ on the road with them as they get on with their lives. 

            All of this is why the Eucharist is such an important part of our worship.  It is the celebration of the presence of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in our midst and in our lives.  As I suggested to you last week, facts are lacking, then and also in this story.  It isn’t a provable concept.  It involves faith and belief.  The two men on the road to Emmaus had a life changing experience.  That is evident from listening to the story; and always what I hope your receiving the Eucharist is also.  Here we are in a worshipping community that has promised to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbors as persons like ourselves.  I can’t imagine a more welcoming community to be a part of.

            Our lives don’t always go well.  We all experience ups and downs and sometimes great grief as our days go on.  Here is where we can find comfort and compassion when we need it and also joy and fellowship on a regular basis.  You all bring important talents to this community.  You have the ability to listen and to share your lives.  That makes a difference.  We bring with us our joys and our failures with us when we come to this place to worship.  That always gives us a basis for conversation.  When we share our lives with each other, I hope that compassion and mercy are the major part of our response to each other.  When we do that, God’s infinite love is present among us.  There is nothing more wonderful that we can share.