Sunday, June 24, 2018

5 Pentecost

June 24, 2018

Job 38.1-11; Mark 4.35-41


+ Lately I have been watching a lot of films. This past week I saw two very different films that created a bit of unrest.

I saw the film Hereditary, about a family possessed and haunted by some kind of evil. It was sort of a cross between The Witch and Rosemary’s Baby.

And I saw First Reformed, a film about a troubled pastor.

Occasionally films do this to me. They affect me. And they sometimes cause me to think too deeply about something.

And I truly do believe that films are the new parables for our world. They speak to us in sometimes veiled ways to convey deeper truth. Of course, I cannot read our scriptures from Job today without thinking of one of my favorite films, the great Cohen brothers film, A Serious Man.

The film takes places in St. Louis Park, Minnesota in the late 1960s and deals with
a Jewish family and the chaos of their lives. The ending of that film (which I won’t give away today) almost reminds me of this Job reading and was the catalyst for me figuring out that that film is a modern re-telling of the Job story. If you haven’t seem A Serious Man, please do so! (it’s not a kid-friendly film though).

To me, in many ways, films are a great and powerful way to wrestle with theology and our understanding of how God works in this world.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful book called The New Christians by Tony Jones.   In this book, Jones has probably one of the best contemporary definitions of theology.  He writes:

“Theology…speaks directly of God. And anytime human beings talk of God, they’re necessarily also going to talk about their own experience of God.”

Jones then goes on to define theology more succinctly.  He writes, “theology is talk about the nexus of divine and human action.”

I like that definition very much.

“But theology isn’t just talk,” Jones adds. “When we paint scenes from the Bible or when we write songs about Jesus or when we compose poems about God or when we write novels about the human struggle with meaning, we are ‘doing theology.’”

I would add to that list, films as well.

So, essentially, our entire lives are all about “doing theology.” All we do as followers of Jesus is essentially “doing theology.”

As I pondered two of our scriptures for this morning, our reading from Job and our reading from the Gospel of Mark, I found myself “doing theology” by re-examining that film A Serious Man which caused to examine the storms of my own life in the light of those scriptures and that film.

We all have them. We all have our own storms in this life. We all have our own chaos. And they are disruptive. And they can be destructive.

So, the question to ask of ourselves this morning is:

What is God saying to us from the whirlwinds that invade our lives?

What do we do in the windstorms of our lives, when we feel battered and beaten and bashed?

Well, as I have been “doing theology” on these scriptures and from that film, one glaring, honest reality of my life came forth: Oftentimes, when the storms of my own life came, I was the one responsible for many of those storms.  Sometimes, there was no one to blame for some of them but myself.  And more often than not, the storms of my own life were caused by own violent behavior.

Now, yes, I know. I preach often here about my non-violence. And I have worked hard, I have strived for non-violence in the world. But I have realized over the last several years that working for non-violence means ridding violence in all forms from one’s own life. One must have a firm foundation of non-violence in one’s own life before seeking it from the larger world (this is a major tenet of Gandhi’s non-violence).

And no, I’m not just talking veganism here. (though I could!)

I was reminded of the violence in my own life by a book I read by the Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, called Refuge Recovery. Levine writes,

“Harsh speech, dirty looks, obscene gestures and [angry and] offensive texts and e-mails are…subtle forms of violence. Our communications have power, the ability to cause harm or harmony.”

He goes on,

“we must strive to abstain from creating more negativity in this world” because by doing so we contribute to the negativity in this world.

“Violent actions have violent…consequences., and that…could manifest as…guilt, [anger,] shame and self-hatred…”

That passage from the book shook me to my core.

I did not want to admit to violence in my life much less to the fact that I sometimes contributed to the violence of this world by my own negativity sometimes.  And let me tell you I have definitely contributed to it from those seemingly small, knee-jerk reactions.

The snide comment.

The angry text or email or Facebook response.

A mean-spirited eye-roll.

The gesture in traffic.   

But the ripple effects of these seemingly innocent gestures in my life were certainly chaotic not only in my life, but possible in the lives of others.  These acts of small or simple violence more often than not were enough to add to the brewing storms of my own life—and possibly to other’s lives as well.  I have, in fact, created storms in my life, then find myself blaming others for those storms.

So, when we hear scriptures like this today, as we experience our own storms in our lives, what do we do?

How do we respond?  Do we let the winds blow, let the chaos rage? Or do we, in those moments, calm ourselves and listen?  Do we strain against the wind of the storm and listen to hear the Voice of God?

The fact is, if you do so, trust me: we will hear God’s voice.  If we turn our spiritual ears toward God, we will hear God, even in those self-made storms in our lives.

For Job, the voice of God he hears in the whirlwind has no answers to the questions we find ourselves asking all the time?  Why do bad things happen to those of us who are faithful to God? Why do our lives get turned upside down?  The Voice that answers Job from the whirlwind doesn’t answer any of that. Instead, the answer is just more questions:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
[Where were you] when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

Sometimes that’s exactly what we hear in the storms of our lives.  We want answers when we shout our angry questions of unfairness into the storm, our first raised.  Sometimes, when we do, the Voice in the wind only throws it all back at us with more questions.  Just when we want answers, we find more questions and we ourselves are forced to find the answers within ourselves. 

But, sometimes the Voice answering back from the wind with questions, is a voice more succinct.  Sometimes it is a more potent question—a question not filled with poetic and symbolic meaning, but a pointblank question to us.  Sometimes the voice from the wind—as we shake with fear or anger (or both) and hold on for dear life during those frightening storms—asks us bluntly:

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Why fear the whirlwinds and all that they unleash upon us?  Why even create them in the first place? Have we no faith?  Again and again through the scriptures God commands us, in various voices, “do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

And still we fear.  And our fear causes anger. And our fear causes storms.

But the message is that although the storms of our lives will rage around us, when we stop fearing, those storms are quieted.  Because sometimes the voice that comes out of the storms of our lives is not asking a question of us.  Sometimes the voice that comes out of the storms of our lives commands,

Peace! Be Still!”

“Peace!”

That wonderful, soothing word that truly does settle and soothe.

“Be still!”

In that calm stillness, we feel God’s Presence most fully and completely.  As disoriented as we might be from being buffeted by the storm, that stillness can almost be as disorienting as the storms themselves.  Still, in it, we find Jesus, calm and collected, awaiting us to have faith, to shed our fears and to allow him to still the storms of our lives.

So, in those moments when we stir up the forces of our anger, when the whirlwinds rage, when the storms come up, when the skies turn dark and ominous, when fear begins lurking at our doors and anger jostles us around, let us strain toward that Voice that asks us,

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Do not fear.

Have faith.

God loves us.

God will not leave alone even in the storms of our lives.

In midst of even the worst whirlwinds of our lives, there is a stillness dwelling in its core.

And while the storms rage, as violence goes on unleashed in the form of anger and fear, in the form of awful stories in the news and social media and people on the street or in our own lives, we can choose non-violence as our option. We can choose not to contribute to the storms.

And we can live!

And flourish!

See! we hear Paul saying today in his letter,

See, now is the acceptable time;

see, now is the day of [our] salvation! 








Sunday, June 17, 2018

4 Pentecost

June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17.22-24; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34

I hope you don’t get too upset with me this morning.  But I’m going to start out today with, of all things, a poem. Actually, it’s only a fragment of a poem. And no, you can relax: it’s not one of my poem either.

No, this poem is a poem from, of all people, a Communist. A Communist from Chile.  It’s one I definitely love. It is called “Oda al ├ítamo” or “Ode to the Atom.” (I think I’ve shared this poem before)

Infinitesimal
star,
you seemed
forever
buried
in metal, hidden,
your diabolic
fire.
One day
someone knocked
at your tiny
door:
it was man.
With one
explosion
he unchained you,
you saw the world,
you came out
into the daylight,
you traveled through
cities,
your great brilliance
illuminating lives,
you were a
terrible fruit
of electric beauty…
[Then] came
the warrior
and seduced you:
sleep,
he told you,
curl up,
atom, you resemble
a Greek god…
in springtime,
lie down here
on my fingernail,
climb into this little box,
and then the warrior
put you in his jacket
as if you were nothing but
a North American
pill,
and traveled through the world
and dropped you
on Hiroshima.

This poem was written by one of my all-time favorite poets—a poet you’ve heard me quote before and, trust me, you will hear me quote again and again—Pablo Neruda.  And this fragment of the poem we just heard just touches a bit on what something as small as an atom can do.

An atom—that smallest of all things—can, when it is unleashed, do such horrendous damage.  It truly can be

“a
terrible fruit
of electric beauty…”

And look at what it could do.

If the people of Jesus’ day knew what atoms where, he would no doubt have used the atom as a symbol of the Kingdom of God,

But rather, what we find today in our Gospel reading is Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to the smallest thing they could’ve understood.

A mustard seed.

A small, simple mustard seed.

Something they no doubt knew. And something they no doubt gave little thought to.  But it was with this simple image—this simple symbol—that Jesus makes clear to those listening that little things do matter.

This past Monday—on the feast of St. Barnabas—I celebrated my fourteenth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.  What can I even say about fourteen years in the priesthood?  At fourteen years, one is definitely not the new kid on the block. Fourteen years is a long time.  Those hopes, those dreams one had for what one was going to do in the ministry have either been realized or dashed.

At fourteen years, you are a grizzled old veteran.  You’ve been through a few things, you’ve seen a few things.

More importantly, one definitely knows if one is bearing fruit or not by fourteen years. One knows if the seeds one has sown have been planted in fertile ground or are, instead, being thrown to the wind and to infertile ground.

What we all recognize is the fact that in one’s life as a Christian there are going to be moments when it seems as though one’s ministry is flourishing and wonderful. And there will be moments when our ministry seems to be producing nothing.

Our ministry, in many ways, reflects our lives.There will be feasts and there will be fasts. And all are equally productive.

Jesus’ use of the mustard seed is particular apt way of approaching ministry.  The mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds and yet look at what it produces. This is what ministry is all about as well.

The smallest thing we do in our ministry can produce some of the greatest fruit.  And that’s real point. All of us—certainly all of who profess our faith as Christians, who come to church on Sundays—are called to ministry.

Ministry is simply part and parcel of being a Christian.  If we are baptized, if we live out that baptism in the world, we are doing ministry.  Ministry is not nor has it ever been the exclusive claim of those of us who have been ordained, who wear funny collars and crisp black clothes.

Ministry has always been the work of all of us. That is why Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to these images of seeds. The Kingdom of God doesn’t just happen when priests and bishops get up and preach and make legislation in the Church.

In a few short weeks beginning on July 5th, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention will meet in Austin Texas.  Let’s face it, the Kingdom doesn’t’ happen just when we as a Church send out deputies off to places like Austin where they make decisions about what direction the Church might go.

And I can tell you right now: the Kingdom of God definitely doesn’t happen when we hide behind Scripture or manipulate and use scripture to promote evil, blatantly unchristian acts such as separated children from their parents.  In fact, in those instances, we are uprooting the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The Kingdom happens when we—each and every single one of us—do, in even some small way, what we profess to do, when we go out from this church on Sundays and try to live out in whatever way we can what we have learned and professed here.

To bring about the Kingdom of God in this world, we don’t need to be grandiose. We don’t need to shout or scream or strut about, full of ourselves.  We don’t need to use the Bible as a sword to cut people down.  We don’t even have to say a simple word.  When it comes to the Kingdom, when it comes to true ministry, little things do truly mean quite a lot.

That sprig that the Prophet Ezekiel talks about in today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures is another example of what the Kingdom of God is like.  From a sprig form the topmost part of the cedar tree, can come a canopy under which we all live and serve.

Ezekiel’s sprig and Jesus’ mustard seed remind me of Neruda’s atom.  Just as the small good things in the world can produce such beautiful and wonderful things such as the Kingdom of God in our very midst, so do those small seeds of discontent flourish into ugly and life-threatening weeds.  

Sometimes the little things we do, do much harm as well. A quick, harsh word of criticism, a glance, a gesture of anger at a fellow motorist on the highway—all of these don’t do anything to bring about the Kingdom of God in our midst. They only sow discontent and anger and frustration.  And where discontent and anger and frustration flourish, the Kingdom of God is stifled.

We have all known what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those seeds of discontent. We have all known people who have been driven from the church by what those seeds have produced.  We ourselves have no doubt been close to leaving the church over those weeds that clog our lives and cause us such pain.

But it does draw us back to the mustard seed once again.  It reminds us that despite all the weeds that can grow, that mustard seed can produce something even greater than weeds.

Those small, good things we do can truly bring about more good than we can hope to produce.  Simple things like a hug, an ear to listen, a smile, an attempt to soothe, to comfort, to help—all these things and so many more go a long way in helping to crowd out the weeds of negativity in the world.  Over and over again in our lives, we have no doubt seen the Kingdom of God blossom in people’s lives and in the world from the smallest seeds of goodness.

So, let us be seeds of absolute and total goodness!  Let us hold before ourselves that image of the mustard seed. Let it be an icon for us in our ministries. Let it be for us a symbol of the ministry we have been called to do by our baptism, by our membership in the Church of God. Let the mustard seed be for us a doorway through which the Kingdom of God breaks through into our world. Let it be the positive atom which, when unleashed, creates an explosion of goodness and beauty and grace in this world.

Let it be the “fruit/of electric beauty” that will transform this world into the Kingdom in which God reigns completed and fully through us.  

Let it be, as Neruda begged the atom to be at the end of his poem:

“…instead of the fatal
ashes
of your mask,
instead of unleashed infernos
of your wrath,
instead of the menace
of your terrible light, deliver to us
your amazing
rebelliousness
for our grain,
your unchained magnetism
to found peace among men,
and then your dazzling light
will be happiness,
not hell,
hope of morning,
gift to earth.”

Let our dazzling light be happiness not hell.

Let us be hope of morning.

Let us be gift of earth.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

3 Pentecost

June 9, 2018

Mark 3.20-35

+ Today is a big day for us here at St. Stephen’s. We, of course, are blessing and dedicating this wonderful window today—the final one of this series of eight windows.   Personally, it means so much to me. Of course, to have such a wonderfully window dedicated to my mother and cousin is moving for me. And I am deeply humbled to be honored by seeing my name and ministry, as well as my poem immortalized in the window means so much. And to honor not only my predecessor-priests, but also those priests that will come to St. Stephen’s in the future is truly beautiful and wonderful as well.

But, for all of us, this window of course represents the completion of an amazing and truly beautiful artistic project here.

It was about two and half years ago that our very own Leo Wilking brought an idea before the Vestry of having a window dedicated in memory of his parents.  At the time, I didn’t know what to think of the idea. Of course, I was all for a stained glass window!

But, I’ll be honest.  I thought we would end up having one window and that would be it. 

Stained glass windows are expensive after all!




But with Gin’s artistic vision, we moved forward, thanks, in some way, to Piet Mondrian (and the Mondrian painting in the opening credits of Green Acres—which causes poor Gin to roll her eyes, but it’s kind of the truth!!).

Still, I will be even more honest about the fact that I thought this would be a project that would be completed long after my time at St. Stephen’s.  I thought: well, this will be a project that will take at least five years, more likely ten.

But first came the Good Samaritan window. And then dear Harriet Blow died and we then got the Mary and Martha window, to balance out the windows.  Then came, of course, the Integrity window which was controversial and exciting and amazing all at once!  And before we knew it…well, here we are.

The first window, that Good Samaritan window, was dedicated and blessed on June 12, 2016. That will be two years on Tuesday.  Within two years, all of our windows are done! That is absolutely amazing! God works in these ways!  (and so does Gin Templeton)

I thank Leo for his vision for these windows.

I thank Michael Orchard and Nick Walberg from the Michael Orchard Studio for their hard work on these windows.

I thank the donors who stepped up and contributed to this incredible artistic accomplishment.

And, of course, we thank Gin. Gin, who sacrificed and labored and lost sleep and was unable to fully enjoy her vacations to Florida, for these windows.  There is a lot of blood and sweat and tears in these windows.

Now, having said all of that, I want to stress something. This all more about more than just glass and paint and metal this morning. These windows are more than just lovely additions to our church building.

Look at these windows! Actually LOOK at them.  See what they represent.Actually look and see what it is they celebrate and commemorate. Because what they celebrate and what they commemorate is you.

Each of you.

You, as well as those who are not here among here in this building today but who now dwell in a place of light inaccessible.  These windows commemorate the ministries you have been doing in this church for 62 years.

These windows represent your blood, your tears, your sweat, your sacrifices, your lost sleep, your moments of despair.

These windows represent your devotion, your perseverance, your dedication, your devotion to God and others.

These windows represent in a very real and beautiful way your attempts at doing the will of God in this world!

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying that wonderful statement of his:

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

Now that was no doubt a jarring statement to Mary, his mother, and to his brothers and sisters. But, I’ve always loved that scripture for a probably not so nice of a reason. Many of know full-well that family is not always those who share genetics with us. Family is often those we chose as family. The Church reminds us of this again and again. Those of us who follow Jesus, who are the sisters and brothers of Jesus, we are also sisters and brothers to each other, and hence, family.  It is true of our church and it is true of our own community.

So, what is doing the will of God? Do I honestly need to even ask this this morning? We know what doing the will of God is.  It’s peached and lived out in this church every single day.

It’s celebrated in these windows.

Doing the will of God is loving—radically and fully and completely. Doing the will of God is accepting radically and completely. Doing the will of God is being radically and fully inclusive.  Doing the will of God is doing things that others say shouldn’t (or can’t) be done.

One of the things we endure in our lives is Christians is the doomsayer. We know the doomsayer. We’ve endured the doomsayer.

While other Christians—and specifically Episcopalians—are singing their songs of doom about the demise of the Episcopal Church and other mainstream churches, we are the ones who laugh at such doomsayers. We are the one who shrug our shoulders at those in authority who tell us we shouldn’t do what we have done here.

Look at these windows and what they celebrate.  

Mary & Martha window

We are the ones who gave women a place in leadership when others said that can’t be done.

Peaceable Kingdom window

We are the ones who say and again that peace is always an option and that justice is a Christian obligation even while wars and rumors of wars raged around us.

Sts. Benedict & Scholastica window

We are the ones who welcome all people in these doors in the name of Christ, receiving them as Christ and including them as one of us.

Good Samaritan window

We are the ones who did not pass by on the other side of the road when see others in need.

Integrity window
We are the ones united under the overarching love and acceptance of God to include all people here, because we are a family under the overarching love of God.

We are the ones who stand up and say we cannot abide when those in  authority tell us we cannot do this or that.

St. Stephen window

 We are the ones who, like our patron saint, St. Stephen, can look up in the midst of a rain of stones, and see the glory of God and Christ standing his the right hand of that Glory.

St. Cecilia window

 We are the ones who, on good days and bad, who in the face of life’s storms or in the sunshine of our youth, who even at the grave are able to rejoice and sing and say, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Bread of Life window

We are the ones who gather here, at this altar, again and again, to break bread with each other, to share the Body and Blood of Christ, and to then go out into the world to share Christ with others.

This is what it means to do the will of God.  And by doing this, we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

See, it’s not doom.  See, it’s not the end of the Church. Yes, we know it’s uncomfortable to change and grow and be pliable. But it’s essential.

The church is changing. These windows today reflect that changing church. These windows reflect the Church that is about to be.

This is the Church of the future. And it is the Church of the past. It is a church filled with music and poetry and art, but it is a church centered squarely on God and God’s Christ.

It is a Church supported by the saints, both those who are alive and present right here, and those who are singing their praises this morning in the Presence of the Lamb.

It is a Church that is radically different and yet radically the same.

Doing the will of God means being like these windows.

In this month’s newsletter, I shared the poem “Windows” by the great Anglican poet and priest, George Herbert (yes, one of my heroes—and who is quoted in our latest window). That poem is, of course, about more than mere windows. It is about us being the windows of the Church.  It is about us being the conduits through which the Light of God shines.  It means opening ourselves to reflect God’s Light to those who need God’s light in their lives.

We don’t have to perfect. We can be “brittle crazie glass” as Herbert says.  We don’t have to be gorgeous stained glass done up in Midcentury modern/Mondrian-inspired beauty.  We can be cracked and dirty and imperfect to reflect the Light of God. But our job is to reflect that Light, even when we don’t feel like or think we can’t.

“Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” we are being asked today.

We are! That is what these windows represent. That is what these windows remind us we are doing. We are being Jesus’ sisters and brothers in this world by doing what these windows celebrate and commemorate.

So, let us celebrate today. Let us give thanks to our loving God for these windows, for all that they represent in our lives and ministries here at St. Stephen’s. Let us rejoice in the artistic and poetic vision and talents of those who labor beside us. Let us be thankful for those who worked on these windows and for those who are remembered in them.

But, most importantly, let us live out what these windows represent.

Let us be windows in our own lives.

Let us be windows reflecting God’s Light and Love to others.

Let us, like these window, shine!

Shine in all we say and do.

Shine in conveying the Light of God’s love and acceptance to all.

Today and always, let us...

SHINE!