Sunday, July 26, 2009

8 Pentecost


July 26, 2009

2 Kings 4.42-44; John 6.1-21

I’m sure everyone is sick of me talking about, but I love to do it. I have lost about 75 pounds in the last two years. The reason I talk about it so much is the simple fact that it is quite a feat to do so. It takes some hard work and some concentrated determination to hunker down and lose weight, not to mention good old-fashioned discipline.

What has been particular enlightening for me however has not only been what has gone on in me physically by my weight loss, but mentally and spiritually as well. Mentally, I have had to reexamine everything I understood about that simple, vital act of eating. I realized that most of us eat not when we’re hungry, but simply out of habit. Yes, we find that when have missed our habitual time to eat, our stomachs start to grumble and we find ourselves thinking inordinately about food, but that isn’t hunger necessarily. In fact, few, if any, of us know what real hunger is. Few of us have actually ever starved. And that’s a good thing. I am happy about that fact.

The point I’m making, however, is that most of us simply eat because we are scheduled to eat at certain times. It’s sort of wired into us. But we very rarely eat just because we’re hungry. As a result, I’ve learned, that most of us probably could survive very well and very healthily from less food than we actually consume.

The spiritual perspective I’ve gained from losing weight has been even more enlightening. To be honest, I had never given much thought to the fact that eating is a spiritual act.

For me, the best way to look at spiritual eating is in the light of that one event that holds us together here at St. Stephen’s, that sustains us and that, in many ways, defines us. I am, of course, speaking of the Holy Eucharist.

You have heard me say it many times before and you will hear me say it many times again, no doubt, but I am very firm believer in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I truly believe that Jesus is present in a very real and potent way in this Bread we eat and in this Wine we drink. Like any good Anglican, I am uncomfortable pinpointing exactly how this happens; I simply say that I believe it and that my belief sustains me.

With this view of the Eucharist in mind, it does cast a new light on our view of spiritual eating. Just as I said that we often eat food each day without thinking much about why we are eating, so too I think we often come to the table without much thought of what we are partaking of here at the altar. I have found, in my own spiritual life, that preparing for this meal we share is very helpful. It helps to remind me of the beauty and importance of this event we share.

One of the things I do is I fast before Holy Communion. Sometimes, especially on Wednesdays, I can’t fast all day before our 6:00 Mass, but in those instances, I do fast at least one hour beforehand. Even that one hour of fasting—of making sure that I don’t eat anything and don’t drink anything but water, really does help put me in mind of the importance of the Eucharist we share.

On Sundays, my fast begins the night before. For some of us, this wouldn’t be a wise thing to do, but I think even keeping to a simplified fast of eating less in the morning and nothing at least an hour before coming to Mass is helpful for most.

If nothing else, these fasts are great, intentional ways of making us more spiritually mindful of what we doing here at the altar.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Elisha feeding the people. We hear this wonderful passage, “”He set it before them,. they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.”

In our Gospel reading, we find almost the same event, Jesus—in a sense the new Elisha—feeding miraculously the multitude.

What we partake of here at this altar is essentially the same event. Here Jesus feeds us as well. Here there is a miracle. here, we find Jesus—the new Elisha—in our midst, feeding us. And we eat. And there is some left over. The miracle, however, isn’t that there is some left over. The miracle for us is that what we eat is in fact Jesus himself. Jesus feeds us himself at this altar.

In this meal we share, we are sustained. We our strengthened. We are upheld. We are fed in ways regular food does not feed us.

In these last few years, as I shed the weight I carried with me, as I learned new ways to understand and appreciate food, I also found myself growing in my appreciation and devotion of the Holy Eucharist. This beautifully basic act—of eating and drinking—is so vital to us. But having Jesus sustain us in such a way is beyond beautiful or basic. It is miraculous. And as with any miracle, we find ourselves oftentimes either humbled or blind to its impact in our lives.

Let us be aware of this beauty that comes so miraculous to us each time we gather together here at this altar. At we approach this wonderful event, to feed of Jesus, whom we follow, let us listen to his voice speaking to us. Let us hear him say to us what he said in today’s Gospel: “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The anniversary of Frank O'Hara's death


Today is also the anniversary (in 1966) of the death of one of my favorite poets, Frank O’Hara, at age 40.

One of my favorite of his poems is “Having a coke with you,” from which I wrote a “take off” of sorts and posted last night.

Here is O’Hara himself reading the poem the year he died:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDLwivcpFe8

The Feast of St. James the Greater


Today is the sixth anniversry of my ordination to the Diaconate. It was a glorious (though oppresively hot and muggy) day in 2003. I was thinking this morning after Morning Prayer that, despite all my training, despite my studies, despite the pastoral experience I had before that day, nothing truly prepared me for ordained life and all that it held (both wonderfully good and not so good).

Still, I am truly thankful today.

Here is the prayer I adapted from John Henry Newman, which I had printed on my ordination booklet.

On my Ordination to the Diaconate

(after John Henry Newman)


Holy and Loving God, help me to spread the fragrance of your presence
wherever I go. Let my soul overflow with your all-consuming spirit and life.
Let your brilliance radiate through my entire being.

Let your presence flow through me so that everyone I know
may, in turn, know the comforting rain-like gentleness of your presence.
When they look at me, let them not see me, but you.
Let them know you as I know you.

Shine through me and let me be a beacon for others—
for it will be your light shining in me, O God, not mine.
Let my pale reflection of your light be like a song of praise to your ears.

Let me preach you without preaching—
not with words, but by example,
by the fire that rages within me,
by all the good I do,
and by the reflected image of your love I carry
branded deep within my expectant heart. Amen.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Having a martini with Michelle

(after the poem “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O'Hara)

is even more fun than going to such exotic places as San Francisco, Inverness, Maple Grove or Milnor
or being sick to my stomach on Broadway in Fargo
partly because in your perfectly 1950s dress you look like a better happier St. Therese of Lisieux
partly because we like each other, partly because of you love wine and I love Bananas Foster martinis
partly because of the music that plays in my world and your world
partly because of the secrecy we share about the people we love and wish for
it is hard to believe when we’re together that our bartender notices not you but me,
who promises to lick even the last drop of that delicious liqueur from the shaker he so expertly handles like the hands a lover has for the one he loves
and still, despite that, we share there a solemnness as unpleasant as the talk of a pretentious composer of popular cartoons
in the warm Fargo 9 o’clock light in which we are drifting back and forth
between our talk like the sun which is escaping us in this dusk we ignore

and the mirror beside us reflects not our faces but the clothes we wear and the pain
we bring to this table with its inlaid crescent moon
bronze as the skin of those we long for and love with a love so intense it brings tears to our eyes
and in this instant we wonder
why
why in the world anyone ever ignore us or not love us or refuse to see in us
the beauty we see in each other

I look
and you look and we would rather look at all those people we know and love who
stare back at us like portraits in a gallery with all their pains drawn on their faces
except possibly the ones we long for and love most who stare back us at like
the unibrowed wonder of Frida Kahlo or the incessant ugly honesty of Francis Bacon
and it’s not this at all but rather, as Frank O’Hara said, the Frick
which we thank the heaven we hope in together
and which some day will welcome us with a beauty we can only glimpse at
now in this hidden corner of an out –of-the-way bar far from those
we can’t escape

we sit here straddling 40
the same age Frank O’Hara was when he stepped out in front of that dune buggy
on Fire Island in that summer before we were born
and the life that lies behind us
and the life that lies before us
is laid out so clearly we can’t quite recognize either
and yet still we know that’s all there
all planned out for us
all written out for us as the prophecies of some wild-eyed
visionary who gazed into the void and saw
in that clarity
the heaven toward which we are headed

but we haven’t gone to that heaven yet
to that place our dear friend Ron has gone to too early for our comfort
and the fact that we move through this dusk so beautifully more or less takes care of
the scared music we hear in our that spark of life within us
just as intense and Baroque as Bach’s Matthias Passion or
at a rehearsal of a singer whom we envy and love in our own way
and what good does the liturgies and music of the church do us or them
when they never got the right person to sing their hymns
we don’t sing hymns
we sings songs of love lost or resurrected or ascended
like that One we know loved and lost and was resurrected and was ascended

oh let’s face it
we’re the pure ones
we have thought long and hard about all of this
we have been tossed to the whim of love for too often in our lives
and it seems that we have been cheated
because others have had this experience and are content in their daily lives
snuggling and hugging each other and whispering sweet-nothings to each other
in nights that never end but go on blissfully like heaven
while we are here drinking and crying
but it’s not lost on me
oh no
which is why I am sitting here in this dusk telling you about it

Sunday, July 19, 2009

7 Pentecost


July 19, 2009

Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6.30-34, 53-56

Today we are getting our share of Shepherd imagery in the Liturgy of the Word. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible, we get Jeremiah on one hand giving a warning to the shepherds who destroy and scatter, and on the other, a promise of shepherds who will truly shepherd, without fear or dismay. In our psalm, we have the old standard, Psalm 23, that has consoled us and upheld us through countless funerals and other difficult times in our lives. I still think of my mother who has said again and again that she never fully appreciated the image of “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” until she gave birth. Finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus has compassion on the people who were like sheep without a shepherd.

Certainly shepherds are one of the most prevalent occupations throughout scripture. And because we hear about them so often, I think we often take the occupation for granted. We don’t always fully take into account the meaning shepherds had for the writers of these books or even for ourselves.

Shepherds have been there from almost the beginning. The first shepherd is, of course, Adam and Eve’s son, Abel. And throughout scripture, the shepherd has been held up as an example—both good and bad. Certainly the reason shepherds were used as examples as they were was because it was a profession most people of that time and in that place would have understood. People would have understood the importance of the shepherd in sustaining the flock, in caring for the flock and leading and helping the flock. And when it came time for a King among the Hebrew people, the ideal was always as a kind of shepherd. In fact, the first truly God-anointed King was not the arrogant and jealous Saul, but the humble shepherd David. And always a good king was always referred to as a shepherd of the people. Even God was referred to the Shepherd of Israel.

In the New Testament, Jesus again uses the image of a shepherd because he knows that his hearers will understand this important image. He refers to himself as the Good Shepherd and he commends his followers to be good shepherds to those they serve. So, shepherding is not something taken lightly in scripture.

But, shepherds in our day don’t mean what they did in those days. Most of us have probably never even met a shepherd and, to be honest, I am not even certain there are shepherds anymore in this industrialized age of electric tagging of animals and night-vision monitoring. So, how does the image of the shepherd have meaning for us—citified people that we are?

Last week, I talked about The Wizard of Oz and referenced Brain McLaren’s observation that Dorothy is truly an example of Christian leadership. I wasn’t certain what the reaction was going to be to such an idea. But I actually heard some very interesting and very helpful comments afterward. One comment especially struck me. One person—I won’t say who—(ok, it was Gin Templeton)—referenced especially the image I used at the end of my sermon. I’ll share it with you once again.

I ended my sermon last week with the belief that the “quest for the Kingdom of God in our midst may not be found at the end of the Yellow Brick Road—in that dazzlingly colorful magical emerald city of our imaginations, but rather, that the Kingdom might actually be where it was all along—in the sepia black and white Kansas world of our everyday lives.”

Gin, artist that she is, said she enjoyed that idea of going from black and white to dazzling Technicolor, back to black-and-white. She said, “It reminds me of the liturgy. We go from the black and white of our everyday lives, here to the dazzling color and musical pageantry of the Mass, sustained and fed to go back to the black-and-white world of our every day lives.”

I loved that comment and it has stuck with me all week. That’s exactly what our liturgy should be. Now I don’t mean that our liturgy should be some false, fake production. Rather, our liturgy, what we do together here in church on Sunday or n Wednesdays or on any other day we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, should be something that dazzles us and sustains us and fills us with joy and hope so that each of us can go back out into the world sustained and filled with joy and hope. Certainly with James and his music and me and my liturgical style (I’m not even going to bring in my preaching style), you’re often getting an over-the-top production on Sundays—sort of like those MGM musicals from the 1930s and 1940s. If we brought in liturgical dance—God help us all!—we might even have one of those kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance sequences. Trust me, that’s not going to happen.

However, liturgy of course isn’t just about the priest and musicians. It is about all of us, coming together to pray, to worship, to sing and play music, and to so with for ourselves and God. We come here to be sustained, to be fed, to be enlightened.

Of course, it isn’t always like that. Sometimes the priest might be off, the preacher might be off, the organist or cantor might be off, or you yourself might be off, and as a result, something just doesn’t work. An important factor is missing. A big of the sparkle and dazzle of this event we call the Mass or the Eucharist is just not there. It happens. But the fact is that even in those moments, we’re doing what we need to be doing. We’re here. We’re worshipping. We’re singing. We’re listening. We’re sharing—our time, our energy, our very presence—with each other and with God. And God is sharing God’s presence with us as well.

In a sense, Jesus shares his presence with us here as a shepherd would share with his flock. The great Anglican theologian Reginald Fuller said “Christ still performs the function of shepherding in the liturgy.” In the first part of the liturgy—in the liturgy of the word in which we hear the scriptures—Jesus teaches the flock through his word., “which Mark emphasizes as an essential function of the shepherd.” In the second half of the liturgy—the Eucharist, the celebration of partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and Wine—Jesus “prepares a banquet for the flock” (which reminds us what we find in our Psalm).

To take this image one step further, the Shepherd not only feeds the flock bread and wine. In our case, with Jesus, he actually feeds us with himself. He feeds us his own Body and his own Blood, knowing that anything else will not sustains us, will not keep us going for long. The Good Shepherd cares just that much for us—that he feeds us with his very self—with his Body and with his Blood.

So, essentially Jesus is the host at this dazzling, over-the-top, Technicolor banquet that we celebrate here on Sundays. And ultimately what happens in our Eucharistic liturgy is that we find Jesus the Shepherd feeding us and sustaining us so that we can go from here fed and sustain to feed and sustain others. Here, in what we are partaking of, we are experiencing the Shepherd in a beautiful and wonderful way. We are receiving all that the Shepherd promises, so that w can go out be shepherds ourselves to those who need us. He sets the example for us. What we do here on Sundays is not some insular, private, secret little ceremony done just for our own personal sake. Yes, we are sustained personally here. But it’s not all about just us. What happens here in this banquet is an event that has the potential to bring about that very Kingdom of God in our midst. It opens the world up so that the Kingdom can break through.

Fed, we feed. Sustained, we sustain. Served, we can serve.

Dazzled by this incredible event in our lives, we then, bearing within us a bit of that dazzling presence, can dazzle others. I am often very fond of telling people that the Eucharist is the one things that sustains me more than any other in my life. People who do not particulate in this incredible event don’t understand. But for those of us who do partake, who do come every Sunday (and on Wednesdays, here at St. Stephen’s), know exactly what that means. When we are weak, when we are beaten down, when we are pursued by the wolves of our lives, we find sustenance here at the altar, in this dazzling Presence of Jesus. When are wearied by the strain and exhaustion of our black-white everyday worlds, in the dusty “Kansas of day-to-day lives, we have the opportunity to come to the dazzling, over-the-top celebration of color and light and music that sustains each of us and delights our senses. And when we return to those worlds, we still have work to do.

Dorothy will still get up from her bed at the end of The Wizard of Oz and will still have to feed the chickens, and will still have face Miss Gulch. But she will be different than she was before because of her encounter with that land of Oz. So are we. We too will have to leave here and face all that we have to face in the world. We have to go out face our jobs, our broken relationships, our ungrateful families, the prejudice and homophobia and sexism and racism and fundamentalism and violence of the black-and-white world. But we do so with this experience we have here within us. We face the unshepherded world shepherded.

“I will raise up shepherds,” The Lord says in our reading from Jeremiah today. “and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” That hope is what we carry with us as we go forward from here. We are the shepherds that are raised us. And we, and those we serve, shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any of us be missing because of our Great Shepherd.

Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On the radio



I was on Susie Ekberg's new Radio show, The Next Step. Check it out below:

http://content.streamaudio.com/podcast/1666/podcastthenextstep_12-06.mp3

Sunday, July 12, 2009

6 Pentecost


July 12, 2009

Amos 7.7-15


When I was a kid, there was one event that I looked forward to more than anything else. This event was one that made me almost crazy with excitement. I anticipated it for weeks and as the day grew closer and closer, I felt the excitement inside me build and build. Finally, the day arrived and all day, I would be antsy in anticipation. And then it arrived. And it was incredible!

The event—this is going to be kind of disappointing (or possibly downright disturbing) to some of you, I know—was none other than the annual airing of that great 1939 Technicolor masterpiece—The Wizard of Oz. Now, remember, this was the days before DVD players or even VCRs, so I had to wait for the networks to air this movie. And when it arrived, it was truly glorious. I would just sort of check out from all my surroundings and watch how this movie assailed all of my senses—especially my senses of sight and sound. I was enraptured about how the film went from that kind of sepia black and white to brilliant Technicolor and then back to black and white. And the film contains everything we want—it has action, it has the battle between good and evil, it has death and rebirth.

In the Church, we use a word called eschatology to refer to “end things.” When think of things like “The Second Coming of Jesus” or “The Rapture,” those would fall under the heading of eschatology. And with eschatology, we often talk about anticipation of these end things. In a sense, my waiting and watching of The Wizard of Oz was an eschatological moment in my life. And it mirrored in many ways the anticipation I imagine we all have to some extent for heaven.

Even to this day, I still get a tingly, warm feeling when I watch The Wizard of Oz. It puts me back in another time and another place. That’s maybe why I was so blown away by something I read just recently.

Last week I talked a bit about Brian McLaren. Very rarely will you find me gushing about anyone. I’m just not that kind of a person. But I am going to gush a bit about Brian McLaren. I cannot get enough of his writing. He has become my favorite theologian and church thinker. Last week, I mentioned how influential his book, A Generous Orthodoxy has been to me. I also mentioned another book he co-wrote with Tony Campolo, called Adventures in Missing the Point. In that book, in a chapter called “Leadership,” McLaren wrote about church leadership in a way that blew me a way. This is why I am so enraptured by McLaren. He is a contemporary Christian who thinks very much outside the box. And if one would ever second-guess how much he thinks outside the box, one only has to read that chapter on leadership.

McLaren looks to, of all things, The Wizard of Oz for his illustration of effective Christian leadership. Now, at first, your mind is going to reel at this. What does The Wizard of Oz have to do with Christian leadership? Well, bear with me.

This weekend I was in the Cities visiting my best friend from high school, Greg. As I’ve said many times before, Greg is a militant atheist. Occasionally, though, he will ask me what I’m going to preach about. When I told him that I was going to preach about McLaren’s view of Christian leadership according to The Wizard of Oz he actually engaged me on this topic.

“Of course that makes sense,” he said. “The Wizard of Oz is the perfect example of most of the Christian ministers I knew when I was growing up at the Assemblies of God Church.”

All talk—blow-hards, but in realty they’re just little men hiding behind a curtain. McLaren actually agrees with my friend Greg. For years, that’s exactly the kind of idea for Christian leadership we’ve had in the Church—the Wizard himself. Big, gusty blow-hards. But, as we all know, when Toto pulls away the curtain, what we find behind it is a normal albeit cowering guy.

But McLaren says that there is actually another example of Christian leadership from The Wizard of Oz that is better and actually more Christian. The true leader in The Wizard of Oz is not the Wizard at all. Nor is it the Tin Man nor the Lion nor the Scarecrow. Who’s left. That’s right—it's actually Dorothy.

Now at first glance, she doesn't fit the model of what a true leader should be. She's young. She's a girl. She doesn't have all the answers. She is being told where to go and what to do. She is lost. She is, as McLaren writes, "a seeker, vulnerable, often bewildered." But in the end, she does emerge as the leader.

McLaren writes: "Dorothy doesn't have the knowledge to help [her companions] avoid all the problems and dangers...she doesn't protect them from all threats and temptations. But neither does she give up. Her passion remains strong, and in the end they get what they need."

Dorothy is the exact opposite of the Wizard. Where the Wizard is all show—a false, inflated image that shoots fire and glares from above—Dorothy is truly and fully human.


As McLaren writes, “ Dorothy as a leadership model is very different. Instead of manipulating images in a control booth, she’s stuck in a predicament…As she set outs on her journey, she finds other needy creatures—one lacking courage, another lacking intelligence, another lacking heart….She believes that that their needs can be fulfilled on a common quest, and her earnestness, her compassion, her determination and her youthful spunk galvanize them into a foursome (five, with Toto).”

McLaren goes on to identify a true (and I love this) “post-wizard kind of leadership” that includes being a listener, a spiritual friend, an includer (he writes that “If Dorothy poses any threat, it is the threat of inclusion, not exclusion. She threatens you with acceptance—you’re a part of the journey, a member of her team’).

Other characteristics including being a seeker and a team builder. McLaren sums it up this way: "I find in Dorothy's way of leadership many echoes of our Lord's. After all, can you imagine the great and terrible Oz washing his subject's feet? Or his voice booming out from behind the curtain, 'I no longer call you servants, but friends?'"

Now to be fair, others don’t see Dorothy as quite the shining example of Christian leadership. Tony Campolo, McLaren’s co-author of the book, writes in response to McLaren’s views: “Dorothy is a lot of fun and makes her partners on the Yellow Brick Road feel good, but she is not what you would want in a leader, say, during a time of crises.” A good point, but maybe that’s what endears McLaren’s theory even more to me—it isn’t perfect. It has flaws. And it does, because Dorothy isn’t perfect. She has flaws. As we all do. But that’s just the point. Even despite all of this, we can still do good.

Last week I talked about how we as Christians are essentially called to be prophets—a community of prophets. In our reading today from Amos, we find a description of the prophet that fits very well into our “post-wizard” view of Christian leadership. We find Amos resisting his call to be a prophet. Amos says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord to me, “Go, prophesy to my people…” I have always believed that an effective leader must first be an effective follower. And as Christians, who are followers of Jesus, we also must, in turn, be leaders to each other. Each of us must be leaders and prophets to those we are called to serve.

Of course we have a choice in the kind of leaders we can be. We can be the Wizards—big-headed, conceited, spouting fire and fear, while, inside, behind the curtain, we are cowering—afraid. Or we can be like Dorothy, ourselves seeking, ourselves often bewildered, but always fully including all of those people who join us on the journey. As corny, unreal, and absurd as The Wizard of Oz might seem to us, the fact is, oftentimes life seems corny, unreal and absurd. In those moments it’s helpful to have coping skills to get us through the journey—and to do so without disrespecting or hurting those we encounter on the journey.

So, cling to this “post-wizard” ideal of leadership in those absurd, strange moments of the journey. Be the prophet, the listener, the spiritual friend, the seeker, the includer. Be the visionary to see that those moments of the journey that seem pointless and too weird to be true as catalysts for God’s grace to shine through into our lives. And realize that our quest for the Kingdom of God in our midst may not be found at the end of the Road—in that dazzlingly colorful magical emerald city of our imaginations, but rather, that Kingdom might actually be where it was all along—in the sepia black and white of our everyday world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

July 7, 1890

Yesterday was the 119 anniversary of the tornado that struck Fargo that killed seven children from the McCarty family. The following poem is the first poem in my manuscript, Fargo, 1957


Terra

The first tornado to strike Fargo happened on July 7, 1890. Although the city was heavily damaged, the only deaths were seven children belonging to the recently widowed Rose. McCarty, who lived in a house at Ninth Avenue and Fifth Street North. Mrs. McCarty, who was pregnant, survived as did her two other children who were in Hunter, N.D. at the time of the storm. One year later, on July 19, 1891, 8-year-old Agnes died from what was thought to be the shock of the loss.

Gone. The last anyone saw of them
was as the gnarled priest
sprinkled blessed water into each open hole,
laid out, side-by-side
before they were filled with children—
washed and cleaned from the coal dust.
They disappeared beneath a tumble
of disturbed sod. What better graves,
everyone thought, than a coal bin
under the collapsed pantry?

Gone—
like that. And six hundred people
in unison mourned them
and helped them to their deep trenches.
One by one they let them down.
First, it was Rose Isabella
laid in her place. Next to her, they put
Mary Alice, then Frances Anna,
then James Francis, Justin, Josephine,
and last, in the smallest coffin of all,
Luella.

And when it was done,
there was not a trace left—
only names inscribed in
a descending pattern
beneath the inscription
JAMES MCCARTY
who died three weeks before.
Seven children’s names—
and the mind boggles
when one reaches the bottom
of the stone pillar.

The clerics who stood by during the burying
in their lace cottas dirty with
grave dirt and sawdust
no doubt pondered impermanence as they knelt in place,
gazing into the void, fingering
their breviaries and rosaries. And so it is.
We are temporary—
the same way clouds are
when they enter the sky, grow full
as our guts, unleash what they have and then
dissipate. Search as we might—
gazing up with our expectant faces
we find no traces there
in the sky we trust in
and ponder ourselves
with the same awe one gives to the divine
mystery after every other solution fails.

We look downward too, into the grass,
our faces unable to find even one trace of them
except there—
in the overgrown grass
where the white footstones mark
strange dents in the earth
and not one thing more.

Maybe they never were, we wonder.
Maybe they never lived. Maybe
it’s all fantasy—
a tale they tell us when the weather
grows ominous and we shudder
at the first sound of thunder.
It could never happen, we conclude,
not seven of them, gone beneath
the weight of wreckage
knocked atop them by
something so basic and common as
wind. There’s not an ounce of proof anyway—
every footprint , every tear
has been washed into the grass by
some long-ago rain.
All we have are letters
inscribed into pale gray granite,
and the simple curves of the death date.

Maybe, they never were.
Or maybe, they were
and they have in fact
become what we know we are
beneath our arrogance at death.
Maybe it’s true of them—
terra es, terram ibis
as it is for all of us.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

5 Pentecost


July 5, 2009

Ezekiel 2.1-5; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6. 1-13

I don’t know about you, but the whole concept of prophets puts me a bit on edge. They almost seem to be like some kind of psychic or fortune teller. They see things and know things we “normal” people don’t see or know. They are people with vision. They have knowledge the rest of us don’t. Now, to be fair, prophets aren’t psychics or fortune tellers. Psychics or fortune tellers tend to be people who believe they have some kind of special power that they were often born with.

According to the basis of prophecy we find in our reading today from Ezekiel, prophets aren’t born. Prophets are picked by God and instilled with God’s Spirit. The Spirit enters them and sets them on their feet. And when they are instilled with God’s Spirit, they don’t just tell us our fortunes. They don’t just do some kind of psychic mumbo jumbo to tell us what our futures are going to be or what kind of wealth we’re going to have or who our true love is. What they tell us isn’t just about us as individuals. Rather, the prophet tells us things about all of us we might not want to hear. They stir us up, they provoke us, they jar us.

Maybe that’s why I find the idea of prophets so uncomfortable. And that’s what we dislike the most about them. We don’t like people who make us uncomfortable. We don’t like people who stir us up, who provoke us, who jar us out of our complacency. Prophets come into our lives like lightning bolts and when they strike, they explode like electric sparks. They shatter our complacency to pieces. They shove us. They push us hard outside the safe box in which we live and they leave us bewildered.

Prophets, as much as they are like us, are also unlike us as well. The Spirit has transformed these normal people into something else. And this is what we need from our prophets. After all, we are certain about our ideas of God. We, in our complacency, think we know God—we know what God thinks and wants of us. Prophets, touched as they are by the Spirit of God in that unique way, frighten us because what they convey to us about God is sometimes something very different than we thought we knew about God. The prophet is not afraid to say to us: “You are wrong. You are wrong in what you think about God and about what you think God is saying to you.” Nothing makes us angrier than someone telling us we’re wrong—especially about God. And that is the reason we sometimes refuse to recognize the prophet.

We reject them because they know how to reach deep down within us, to that one sensitive place inside us and they know how to press just the right button that will cause us to react. And the worse prophet we can imagine is not the one who comes to us from some other place. The worse prophet is not the one who comes to us as a stranger. The worse prophet we can imagine is the one who comes to us from our own neighborhood—from the midst of us. The worse prophet is the one whom we’ve known. We knew them before the Spirit of God’s prophecy descended upon them. And now, they have been transformed with this knowledge of God. They are different. These people we know, that we saw in their inexperience, are now speaking as a conduit of God’s Voice. When someone we know begins to say and do things they say God tells them to do, we find ourselves becoming very defensive very quickly. Certainly, we can understand why people in Jesus’ hometown had such difficulty in accepting him.

The fact is, we too sometimes have difficulty in accepting Jesus as who he says he is. We, rational people that we are, try to explain away who he was and what he did. And we sometimes try to explain away who he is and what he continues to do in our lives. And probably the hardest aspect of Jesus’ message to us is the simple fact that he, in a very real sense, calls us and empowers us to be prophets as well. As Christians, we are called to be a bit different than others. We are transformed in some ways by the Spirit’s presence in our lives. In a sense, Jesus empowers us with his Spirit to be conduits of that Spirit to others. If we felt uncomfortable about others being prophets, we’re even more uncomfortable about being prophets ourselves. Being a prophet, just like hearing the prophet, means we must shed our complacency. If our neighbor as the prophet frightens us and irritates us, we ourselves being the prophet is even more frightening and irritating.

Empowered by this spirit of prophecy, oftentimes what we say or do seems crazy to others. The Spirit of prophecy we received from Christ seems a bit unusual to those people around us. Loving those who hate us or despise us? Being peaceful—in spirit and action—in the face of overwhelming violence or anger? To side with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized when it is much easier and more personally pleasing to be with the wealthy and powerful? To actually see the Kingdom of God breaking through in instances when others only see failure and defeat? That is what it means to be a prophet.

Being a prophet means seeing and sensing and proclaiming that Kingdom of God. For us, as Christians, that is what we are to do—we are to strive to see and proclaim the Kingdom. We are to help bring that Kingdom forth and when it is here, we are to proclaim us in word and in deed. Because when that Spirit comes upon us, we become a community of prophets, proclaiming together the Kingdom of God. We who have been granted the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we prayed in today’s collect, find ourselves compelled to be devoted to God with our whole heart and “united to one another with pure affection.”

Being a prophet in our days is more than just preaching doom and gloom to people. It’s more than saying to people: “repent, for the kingdom of God is near!” Being a prophet in our day is being able to recognize injustice and oppression in our midst and to speak out about them.

You’ve often heard me talk about Brian McLaren, the author of A Generous Orthodoxy, one of the most influential books I’ve read in the past several years. McLaren, in another book I have come to love, Adventures in Missing the Point, says that we oftentimes, as Christians, have to ask ourselves “What issues matter the most to us?” This is certainly an important question for us Episcopalians as our Deputies and Bishops head off for Anaheim for our General Convention this week. One of the issues that should matter the most to us as we gather is the issue of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our church. In addition to this vital issue, McLaren goes on to say that there are others issues we should be concerning ourselves with as Christians. The current issues we should be concerning ourselves with, that we should be speaking out about as prophets proclaiming the Kingdom of God in our midst, include such issues as overpopulation, Consumerism, Ecology, Genetic engineering and, of course, poverty.

One of the great prophets of our own day was the late Roman Catholic bishop of Recifie, Brazil, Dom Hélder Câmara. Camara was a perfect exmaple of how the prophet in our midst is both esteemed and reviled, oftetimes at the same time, for speaking out propehtically about such an issue as hunger. Camara once famously said, “When I gave them food, they called me a saint. When I asked why they had no food, they called me a communist.”

Martin Luther King was another example of someone we now identify as a prophet. But what many people now forget about now is that in the 1950s and 1960s, he too was being demonized from pulpits and in political speeches as, of all things, a Marxist. And, in his case, being a prophet, being a visionary who saw that the Kingdom of God was about to break through and that when it did, amazing things would happen—in his case, proclaiming such a message brought him a violent death. When we press people’s buttons, they’re going to react. And we need to be prepared to do that. But we can’t be afraid to do so. We need to continue to speak out. We need to continue to be the prophets who have visions of how incredible it will be when that Kingdom of God breaks through into our midst and transforms us.

So, let us proclaim the Kingdom of God in our midst with the fervor of prophets. Let us proclaim that Kingdom without fear—without the fear of rejection from those who know us. Let us truly be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities “for the sake of Christ,” knowing full well in that paradoxical way that is the way of Christ that whenever we are weak, we are strong.