Sunday, October 31, 2010

23 Pentecost

October 31, 2010

Luke 19.1-10

+ When I was a little boy at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church near Harwood, ND, I remembered this story of Zacchaeus being told to us in Sunday School. There was even a hymn we used to sing:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,A wee little man was he.He climbed up in the sycamore tree,The Savior for to see.

In fact, I even remember an illustration of this little man in a tree looking at Jesus. It must’ve been the fact that he was “wee little man” that made him so appealing to kids. At the time, I was certain that Zacchaeus was a munchkin of some sort. Of course, the Bible and the Wizard of Oz were both equally meaningful to me at that time (and at time both still are).

But his wee stature makes our Gospel reading a seemingly pleasant story. We’ve all heard this story of how Zacchaeus climbed the Sycamore tree to see Jesus. And on the surface, it really is a pleasant story. It seems to be a story of faith and persistence and how, with faith and persistence, Zacchaeus invited Jesus to his home, which Jesus did and ate with him.

But to truly understand this story we have to, as we always and always should, put it within the proper context of its time and its culture. And to do that, we find dimensions added to this story that we might not have seen at first glance. The first clue that something more is going on in this story than we might catch at first glance is the fact that Zacchaeus is, after all, a chief tax collector. And that he is rich.

The fact that he is rich is actually a bit redundant. The chief tax collector is, of course, rich. But it isn’t that he’s rich that we might find something deeper going on. It’s because he is a tax collector. Because a tax collector at that time, in that culture, was one of the worst people one could imagine.

On one hand, he was seen as a traitor. He had sided with the occupying government—the Roman government—and collected taxes from his own people to pay the Roman government. These tax collectors were also notorious for lining their own pockets. And this might be why there is mention of the fact that he is rich. He, no doubt, was rich because he stole money from the people. It was easy for tax collectors skim the coffers so they could keep what they wanted for themselves. And even if they didn’t resort to such underhanded dealings, they were usually judged by the general population as doing so.

Certainly, no one trusted and certainly no one liked them. But this wasn’t the end of Zacchaeus’ troubles.

Probably worst of all, Zacchaeus was seen as unclean by his fellow Jews. After all, he handled the money of the Romans, which had on it, an image of the Emperor. Since the Emperor was viewed as divine, as a god, what Zacchaeus was handling then was essentially a pagan image and to handle it was to make one’s self unclean according to the Jewish Law.

So, Zacchaeus—poor Zacchaeus—was in a lose-lose situation. He was despised as being both a traitor and as being religiously unclean. And Jesus knew full well who Zacchaeus was and what he stood for in his world when he called up to Zacchaeus in that tree and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus knew full well that Zacchaeus was unclean—nationally and religiously.

Zacchaeus was an outcast. He was living in the fringes of his society. He probably had few friends—and the few friends he had were no doubt friends with ulterior motives—friends who knew they could get something out of Zacchaeus.

When we re-examine our Gospel story again knowing what we know now, the story takes on a different tone. It becomes less of a sweet, Sunday School story about a short man and becomes quite a radical story. It shows us that Jesus truly was able to step outside the boundaries of his day and reach out to those who truly needed him.

Ultimately, the story of Zacchaeus is the story of ourselves. We, after all, are out here, living the fringes of our own worlds at times. We live out there feeling more often than not like outcasts in our own lives and worlds. We sometimes see ourselves as the tax collectors in our own midst. We are the ones who put other things first in our life before we do God. We are the ones who lie and cheat—if to no one else but to ourselves. We are the ones who are often led astray by the world and its riches. We are the ones who fail ourselves over and over again.

And yet despite all of this, we are the ones who go and search out Jesus. We are the ones who, fully aware of our own uncleanliness, climb up out of the muck of our lives, trying seek out who Jesus is. We are the ones who, every Sunday come together for our meal with Jesus and pray, at least silently to ourselves, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and I will be clean.”

And in this story Zacchaeus does the right thing. He says to Jesus that he will not only pay back half of his possessions, but he even offers to pay back four times the amount he stole. This is really incredible because Jewish Law didn’t expect anything close to four times the amount being paid back. In the 6th Chapter of Leviticus, whenever anyone commits a trespass against God by deceiving a neighbor in the a matter of a deposit or pledge or by robbery or if one has defrauded a neighbor, the one who defrauded shall pay back the principal and add one-fifth to it. (Leviticus 6.1-7)

But we know why Zacchaeus makes the offer he does. For those of us who are truly repentant, that’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? I often hear from people about how sorry they are for this and for that.

But on those occasions, when I am truly sorry—truly repentant, truly striving to make right the wrongs I’ve done—I find myself wanting to go above and beyond the call of duty. I want to make right the wrongs I’ve done and feel as though it is truly right again.

That is what Zacchaeus is truly saying to Jesus. And that is what we should be truly saying to Jesus as well when we turn away from the wrongs we’ve done and attempt to do right again.

The story of Zacchaeus shows us that sometimes Jesus must violate some social norms and even the popular interpretation of scripture. Just by going to Zacchaeus’ home,
Jesus has made several major faux pas. He has talked with an unclean person. He has gone with this unclean person to the house of the unclean person—a household which according to Jewish Law is unclean as well. That means the building, the wife, the children, anyone who enters it, is unclean. So Jesus enters the unclean dwelling of an unclean person. And what does he do there? He probably goes there and he probably eats there. Again, two more things the Law was clear were wrong. Eating food prepared and served by unclean people was unclean as well.

And yet, as we know, Jesus was not made unclean by any of this. What in fact happens? Jesus makes the unclean clean. Jesus purifies this man, his family, his house, his food—his life.

The purification of Jesus was bigger than anything anyone at that time could possibly understand. And even for us—now. His presence and his Word turns the uncleanliness of that place into a place of redemption and joy.

And that is how this story for today really ends. It’s never mentioned outside of the fact that Zacchaeus is “happy to welcome” Jesus, but there seems to be an almost palpable joy present in this story. The word Joy is never even used. But we know—we feel—that as this story ends, there is a true and wonderful joy now living in that house of Zacchaeus because of Jesus’ presence there. The lost have been saved. The unclean have been cleansed. The wrongs have been righted.

See, this is our story as well. No matter what we’ve done, no matter how unclean we or the standards of our own day or society have made us, the presence of Christ in our lives, the sound of his Word in our ears, redeems us. Those of who have been lost have found our way back. Those of us who were weighed down are now rejoicing in a cleanliness and purity we find amazing. Those of who have climbed the sycamore tree searching for Jesus, who have gone here and there searching for him among the crowds, have found his salvation in our own homes—in our own place. Jesus comes to us in a familiar place and we are better for it.

Jesus is still saying to us today, “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Our house is this body we have. It is this house he enters and dwells within. And by his presence he purifies.

Today, at this altar, we will heed that call. When we come forward for Eucharist—when we come forward to eat his flesh and drink his Blood, we are saying yes to his command that he must stay at our house today. And when we leave here and go into the world, we do knowing He has redeemed us and made us whole so that we can share that joy we feel at what he has done for us.

So, let us listen to his words to us.

“Today salvation has come to this house.”

Let us rejoice in that salvation has come to us where we are, in our very midst. And let that implied joy we find in our Gospel story come bubbling up within us at this news so that when he comes to us we will be overjoyed welcome him.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

22 Pentecost

October 24, 2010

Luke 18.9-14

+ Earlier this week, I had one of the conversations clergy people often has with people. My lunch mate was a member of one of the more conservative congregations in town. During our conversation, the topic, invariably, turned to the issue of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church.

“I am not against gays,” the persons aid. “In fact, I have many friends who are gay. “My issue is…” I held my breath knowing full-well where she was going. “ with the sin of homosexuality. I love the sinner. I just hate the sin.”

Now, over the years, I have heard this explanation so many times that I can almost anticipate it even before the words actually come out. And over the years, I will admit, I have not responded to it as I should. I am guilty of doing so. But this past week, I couldn’t hold my tongue. So, I held up my finger and waved it at her a bit and I clicked my tongue at her. I said,
“You know, I don’t know believe, of course, that being gay is a sin by any sense of the word. But….for the sake of argument, let’s just say for this one instance that it is. Even if it is, it is not your place or mine to say we hate anyone else’s sin.”

She stared back at me in disbelief, but (and I give her full credit for this), she decided to let me speak. “Go on,” she said.

“It’s is not my place or yours to hate any one else’s sin. My only responsibly is to hate my own sin. If I sin, I must hate my own sin. But it is not my job, as a Christian or as a priest, to even see the sin anyone else has.”

I then went on to quote my favorite quote from Pope John XXIII (and sort of the motto of my priesthood): “I am here to bless not to condemn.”

The point I went on to make to her (and to you) is that I am simply not in the position to look at anyone else as a sinner. My own job is to see myself as a sinner and live with that. My only job as a Christian is simply love—not just someone who is a sinner, but all of us, who are sinners. And to love them fully and completely as they are, just as God loves us.

For those of who say things like, “I love the sinner, but hate the sin,” we think what we are saying is actually kind and selfless thing to say. But it really isn’t. It’s a terribly self-righteous statement. And it’s a terribly judgmental thing to say.

When we say such things, we end up sounding very much like the proud Pharisee in Jesus’ parable this morning. In a sense, we are saying, I love the sinner, but I cannot abide by their sin and I am just so thankful that I am not sinning in that same way.

In those moments when we are confronted with what seems like someone’s else’s sin, we should take the example of the tax collector. We too should beat our breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s probably one of the purest and more honest prayers we can make. And what I love even more about this parable is the fact that the prayer of the Pharisee isn’t even necessarily a bad prayer in and of itself. I mean, there’s an honesty in it as well. The Pharisee is doing, as Pharisees do, the “right” thing; he is filling his prayer with thanksgiving to God. The problem arises in the fact that the prayer is so horribly self-righteous and self-indulgent that it manages to cancel out the rightness of the prayer. The arrogance of the prayer essentially renders it null and void.

The tax collector’s prayer however is so pure. It is simple and straight-to-the-point. This is the kind of prayer Jesus again and again hold sup as an ideal form of prayer.

But what gives it its punch is that is a prayer of absolute humility. Humility is the key here. It gives the prayer just that extra touch. There is no doubt in our minds as we hear this parable that God hears this prayer, even though it being prayed by someone considered to be unclean.

Humility really is the key and it is the one thing so many of us are lacking in our spiritual life.

St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite saint, once said, “Humility, humility. In this way we let our Lord conquer, so that he hears our prayer. And the first sing that have this humility is that you do not believe that you have earned the Lord’s gift of grace and delights or count on earning them as long as you live.”

I think we’re all a bit guilty of lacking humility in our spiritual lives and in being self-righteous when it comes to sin. We all occasionally take some delight, as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable does, in the shortcomings and failures of others. We watch with almost gleeful joy when politicians are involved in scandals, or movie stars get in trouble with drugs or the law, or even when clergy fall and fall hard.

I think some of us think: “Thank God it’s them and not me.” And maybe that’s an honest prayer to make. Because what we also say in that prayer is that we, too, are capable of being guilty. We just don’t want to be found out.

We all have a shadow side. We are all sinners. There’s no way around that fact. But the fact is, the only sins we’re responsible for are our own sins—not the sins of others. We can’t pay the price of other’s sins, nor should we delight in the failings of others.

I remember reading a saying once by an Eastern Orthodox saints, Barsanufios. He said, “”He who recognizes his own stench in his nose cannot recognize any other smell even if he stands on a pile of dead bodies.”

Yes, it’s a disgusting image, but it strikes home.

All we can do as Christians, sometimes, is humble ourselves. Again and again. We must learn to overlook what others are doing and concentrate on what we ourselves are doing wrong. And when we recognize what we are doing wrong, to correct those wrongs and to strive to do right. That’s all we can do.

There are too many self-righteous Christians in the world. We don’t need anymore. What we need to be is humble, contrite Christians. We need to be people who don’t see the people we are called to serve as inferior to us—as charity cases to whom we can share our wealth and privileges.

Rather, to paraphrase the great St. Therese of Lisieux: we should sit down with sinners, not as their benefactors but as the “most wretched of them all.”

We should because we are. In our own eyes, if we carry true humility within us, if we our own stiffest and most objective judges, then we know that we are the most wretched of them all and that we are in no place to condemn others, nor are we in a place to hate the sins of others—only our own sins.

It’s not easy to do that, but it is essential. It is essential if we are going to truly love those we are called by Jesus to love and it is essential to our sense of honesty before God.

So, let us steer clear of such self-righteousness as hating other people’s sins and let us draw whatever hatred we might have within us onto our own failings and shortcomings—not so we can beat ourselves up and be self-deprecating, but so we can overcome our shortcomings and rise above them.

Let us look at others with pure eyes—with eyes of love. Let us not see the sins of others, but the light and love of God permeating through them, no matter who they are.

And with this perception, let us realize that all of who have been humbled will be lifted up by God and exalted in ways so wonderful we cannot even begin to fathom them in this moment.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

21 Pentecost

October 17, 2010

2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

+ A few weeks ago I had a fun evening with the Freethinkers at Minnesota State University Moorhead. I spoke to them that evening about…fundamentalism. I know that’s a favorite subject to most of us here. I was really looking forward to speaking with these young students who are atheists, agnostics or simply people frustrated with Christianity.

To be fair, the Freethinkers invited several Christian organizations to come and listen to me as well. Not one of those groups showed up (though, I heard, they often do to other speakers).

As we talked that evening about fundamentalism and particularly about Scripture, I used the (what I consider anyway) old image of the two-edged sword. I said, Scripture is a two-edged sword, especially for those who use it as a weapon. If our intention is to cut people with it, just be prepared that we too will in turn be cut. That is what scripture does when we misuse it. But if we use scripture as it meant to be used—as an object of love—then it is also two-edged. If we use it as way of open the channels of God’s love to others, then the channels of God’s love will be opened to us as well.

I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone here that I truly do love the Scriptures. I mean, what kind of priest would I be if I didn’t love the Scriptures? After all, one of the vows I made when I was ordained as a Deacon and later reaffirmed when I was ordained a Priest was this:

“I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”

Now, that might sound like a somewhat fundamentalist view of such things. The scriptures are the Word of God? you might ask. Even with all the apparent flaws and contradictions? And it contains everything necessary for salvation? Come on.

But I do believe these statements—though not in a fundamentalist way of thinking. If we look elsewhere in our Prayer Book, back in that place I like to direct us to go sometimes—the Catechism—we find a little expansion on this thinking. On page 853, you will find this question:

“Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?”

The answer:

“We call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks through the Bible.”

I think that is a wonderfully down-to-earth, practical and rational explanation.

In our “Episcopal 101” classes on Tuesdays, we have been having fun exploring what Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church are. The other night, I explained Richard Hooker’s three-legged stool. If you’re unfamiliar with this three-legged stool, which most of us are, I’m sure you’re getting a funny image in your mind when you hear me say: “Hooker’s three-legged stool. “ But let me explain.

Richard Hooker was a great 16th Century Anglican theologian. He explained that Anglican belief was based not on “The Church Alone” of the Roman Catholics nor even on “The Word Alone” of the Lutherans, but is in fact based on a more balanced view. The three legs of the stool of Anglicanism are Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Take one of those legs away, the stool wobbles and falls. But use all three and you will have a very a balanced view of religion.

For example, if we only have Scripture, without Reason or Tradition, we end up with what I consider the heresy of fundamentalism. And it is a heresy. Anytime we place any thing on par with God—any time we claim any thing is perfect and without flaw—we have a created an idol. And my view is that fundamentalists have made the Bible into an idol.

But for us Episcopalians, our view of scripture is based on a balance of tradition and reason. We can’t just believe anything we want with regard to Scripture. There are scriptures that we don’t like hearing. But none of gets to edit the Bible. We don’t get to cross out those things we don’t like. We have to confront them and meet them face-on. And we have to wrestle them and in wrestling with them we must use a good dose of reason, and a good dose of tradition. And if we do that, we come away from those difficult scriptures with a new sense of what they say to us.

I remember a friend of mine who was a famous poet (and a “recovering Lutheran”) once announcing at a reading: “I think we should take all the writings of Paul out of the New Testament and replace them with Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.”

Now, as much as I love Walt Whitman and as much as Leaves of Grass has been a very important vital inspiration to me as a poet, I think this goes a bit too far. I, for one, have no desire to read the Koine Greek version of Leaves of Grass any time soon.

I might not like what Paul says sometimes—I might not even agree with it—but, good or bad, it isn’t up to me. Or any of one of us. It’s up to the Church, of which we, as individuals, are one part and parcel. For us Episcopalians, we don’t have to despair over those things Paul says that might offend our delicate 21st century ears.

We just need to remind ourselves that our beliefs about Scripture are based on a rational approach tempered with the tradition of the Church. In fact, if we continue reading on page 853 in the Catechism, we will find this answer to the question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?”

The answer:

“We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of Scripture.”

There you see a very solid approach to understanding Scripture. Reason (in this sense the inspiration of the Spirit), along with the Church (or Tradition) helps us in interpreting Scripture. Such thinking prevents us from falling into that awful muck of fundamentalism. Such thinking steers us clear of this misconception that that the Scriptures are without flaw. Such thinking also steers clear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with regard to Scripture as well.

Sometimes, if we use too much reason in our approach to Scripture, we find ourselves reasoning it all away and it becomes nothing but a quaint book of myths and legends. Yes, the Scripture are not without flaws. As God-inspired as they might be, they were written by human beings. And human beings have been notorious—even in Scripture—of not always being able to get everything perfect, no matter how God-inspired they are. Not even Scripture expects us to be perfect.

But, the second part our explanation of the question from the Catechism of why we call Holy Scripture the Word of God is even more important to me.

“God stills peaks to us through scripture.”

I love the idea that God does still speak to us through these God-inspired writings by flawed human beings. And what God speaks to us through Scriptures is, again and again, a message of love, even in the midst of some of the more violent, or fantastic stories we read in Scripture.

Now, one of those flawed human beings in the Bible was of course, the Apostle Paul. Paul himself would admit, on one of his less grandiose days, that he was a flawed person. And I love the fact that, this morning, God seems to be speaking loud and clear through Paul in his letter to Timothy.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” Paul instructs, “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

I love that. That is some rational, solid thinking, if you ask me. Scripture here is intended not to condemn, not bash, not to hurt, but to build up and equip us for “every good work.” Although I know Paul tends to be the poster child for everything a lot of people dislike about the Church, I actually like Paul.

He is at turns grandiose and humble, a blow-hard and yet strangely compassionate, contradictory and single-minded in his faith, puffed up and humble, holy and yet an arrogant sinner, all sometimes at once. Wait…was I speaking about Paul…or myself????
Maybe that’s why I like Paul. He is like all of us, to some extent. We are all contradictory as Christians at times. Again, no one is expecting us to be perfect Christians. And St. Paul is sort of the patron saints of imperfect Christians everywhere.

Today, though, we find him in rare form. I like it when Paul does what he does today.

“Proclaim the message, “ he tells Timothy (and us), “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorably; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

For any of who have been teachers, those words strike home. But, if you notice, nowhere does Paul say we must condemn or pound down, or coerce others using Scripture. Scripture must build up and encourage and teach us to serve and to love. And Scripture must be a conduit through which God continues to speak to us.

So, let us embrace this balanced and reasonable approach to Scripture. Let us listen to Scripture and hear the Word of God speaking to us through it. Let us continue to place the Scriptures at the center of our lives and let us allow them to guide us into a pathway of love and service. And, most importantly, let us use it, again and again, as an instrument of love rather than a weapon of war and hatred. And when we do, we will find that the two-edged sword of that instrument of love, will open the doors of God’s love to us as well.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Memorial Service for Hale Laybourn

The Memorial Service for
Hale Laybourn
(July 20, 1923+September 16, 2010)
Isaiah 25.6-9

+ Occasionally, people come into our lives who change our lives and make differences in our lives. Although I did not know Hale, from what I have heard about him, he was one of those people who made a difference in the world. We just heard Larry Gauper speak about the differences he made with his business. But I can tell you, as I look back through the history of this church, that Hale was also a person of great faith.

Back in 1971, when St. Stephen’s went from mission status (which meant it was dependent upon the diocese) to parish status (when it officially became independent) Hale was at the forefront of this very important transition. At the time, he was the Senior Warden. In fact, in the Narthex, you will see the framed document of when St. Stephen’s became a parish. On that document, Hale’s signature is the first one on that page.

St. Stephen’s, since 1971, has changed considerably. There have ebbs and flows. At this very moment in its history, it is a time of growth and stability. We are a parish that is truly alive. And most people can feel that life and energy when they come through the door. And none of this life and energy could’ve happened without those brave and forward-thinking people back in 1971 who signed that document.

Being an Episcopalian was important to Hale. We know this not always by what he said, but often but what he did. We saw how important his faith was to him by the work he did in the church. And as an Episcopalian, the Book of Common Prayer—this book from which we are worshipping this morning—was very important to him, as it is to all Episcopalians. This book helps us to pray, helps us to understand God and God’s dealings in our lives. It is a book that, with the Bible, helps us to grow closer to God in our devotional life.

No doubt, this very service that we are participating in at this moment, was a service of great consolation to Hale in his life. And Hale, no doubt, would commend the words of this service to us as a way of consoling ourselves and making sense of the loss and sadness we are feeling this morning at his death. The fact is, we can take great hope in our liturgy—in the actual words of this service. Certainly, for us Episcopalians, we place huge importance on what we do in church—on Sunday mornings, during our funeral services, at any time we gather together to pray and to sing

At the beginning of this service, we heard that wonderful hymn,” Jerusalem, my happy home.” I have always loved this hymn. And one of the lines I’ve always loved is that second verse to the hymn:

“Thy saints are crowned with glory great;
They see God face to face;
They triumphant still, they still rejoice
In that most happy place.”

Those words truly do console us in times like this. They give us strength and hope to go on. And for someone who loved music as much as Hale did, it is easy for us to imagine him still singing those words in that “most happy place.”

We also find this hope in that wonderful place permeating through the words of this funeral service. For example, the words we used at the beginning—words that actually come from the Gospel of John—are incredible, and have been used to begin Anglican funerals since 1549:
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
We often don’t think too much about those words, but they really do tell us everything we could hope to hear about death. In Jesus, we have Resurrection and Life. With faith in Jesus, even though we will die in our bodies, we shall live. And in living, we will live forever with him.Also, we Episcopalians do something few other non-Roman Catholic denominations do: we actually pray for our deceased. While most Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists make a point of specifically not praying for the person who has passed away, we very unashamedly do. In a few moments, at the end of the Prayers of the People, we will pray,“Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brother, Hale, who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.”These words and images and sentiments make our liturgy so important and help it to carry the weight it does. That’s why I always encourage people to take these service programs with them following the service and read through these words when they’re feeling sad. Often people tell me that they have taken the Episcopal funeral service home with them and replaced the name in the program with one of their own loved ones and that using these prayers have helped them in their own grief and sorrow. After all, they are full of consolation and hope. They truly do give us a glimpse of what awaits all of us.
This liturgy carries great meaning at other times as well. I am in the habit of praying the Prayers at the Time of Death, found in the Prayer Book, for anyone when I hear they have passed. About a month ago, when I heard of Hale’s death, I prayed those prayers for him that day. One of those prayers is one of the most beautiful you can find in the Prayer Book (and that’s saying a lot since there some beautiful prayers in the Prayer Book). The prayer I prayed for Hale that day was this:

“Almighty God…before whom live all who die in the Lord: receive our brother Hale into the courts of your heavenly dwelling. Let his heart and soul now ring out in joy to you, O Lord, the living God, and the God those who live…”
It was a perfect prayer for Hale. On that day Hale left us, he was truly received into the courts of God’s heavenly dwelling. In that moment, God welcomed him into that place that lay ahead for him—a place of unending, glorious life.

This is the consolation we can take away from today. In that place—that wonderful glorious place, promised to us in scripture, in liturgy and in song—Hale is now fully and completely himself. He is whole. Of course that doesn’t make any of this any easier for those who are left behind. Whenever anyone we love dies, we are going to feel pain. But like the illnesses that lead to death, our feelings of loss are only temporary as well. All of our pains and losses will pass away. Our hope in this fact helps get us through. This knowledge is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss.

In our reading from Isaiah, we heard

“God will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces…”

This is what scripture allows us to glimpse. This is what liturgy allows us to look forward to. This is what hymns allow us to celebrate in music and song. It is a faith that can tell us with a startling reality that every tear we shed will one day be dried by God and every pain we have will disappear. Hale knew this faith in his own life. And we too can cling to it in a time like this.At the end of this service, we will sing a beautiful song—the “Song of Farewell.” The words are traditional words—often the priest says them on the way out of the church after a funeral if there is no final hymn. In that hymn we will sing,“Come to his aid, O saints of God,
Come meet him, angels of the Lord.
Receive his soul, O holy ones;
Present him now to God, most High.

On September 16, the saints of God came to Hale’s aid. On that day, angels met him and led him to that Jerusalem, that happy home. On that day, we was presented to God, Most High. One day we too will be received there as well. One day, we too will experience that wonderful paradise.So this morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith that Hale is in that happy, joyful place of light and music. Let us take consolation in that paradise to which he has been received by saints and angels. And let us be glad that one day we too will be there as well, sharing with him in that joy that will never end.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

19 Pentecost

October 3, 2010

Luke 17.5-10

+ I know it’s a strange thing for a priest to say (among the many, many other things you’ve heard me say) but….I love to read all the latest literature on atheism. It’s all fascinating to me. Whether it be Richard Dawkins best-selling book The God Delusion or Sam Harris’ End of Faith, or even the classics such as Bertrand Russell’s, Why I am not a Christian, or even the Essentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, I actually do enjoy reading such books. Maybe it’s because I can actually understand atheism to some extent. I, of course, am a very committed Christian who believes deeply and firmly in my faith in God and in Jesus. But, I also can understand how people doubt. I doubt too. I hope we all doubt at times because doubt is important to faith. We need to doubt occasionally. After all, as I often say, Jesus doesn’t want us to be mindless robots. And doubt shows that we are not robots. Doubt shows that we are rational, thinking human beings who are given the gift to make balanced decisions about our faith.

Now, of course, there are people who think I am crazy to even suggest that something like doubt is a good thing. This past week, I was at a very conservative Roman Catholic store in town here and was having a lively discussion with the young girl behind the counter. She was very intrigued by me—this progressive-minded Anglo-Catholic priest who believed many of the things she did, but who also did not believe in many of the things she held dear. However, in the midst of our discussion about our respective churches, I said to her, “Well, no doubt there are things about your church you don’t agree.” She stopped and the smile fell from her face and very seriously she said to me: “There is nothing about the Roman Catholic that I disagree with.”

For her, her faith is 100% strong and sturdy. For me, I can’t say the same. I do doubt occasionally—and let me tell you, I do doubt especially the organization called the Church on several occasions, even despite the fact that I am a uniform-wearing representative of that organization. And when it comes to my faith, there are some days better than others. Some days I do feel pretty convinced about what I believe. But other days, I doubt certain things. And that’s all right too.

“Increase our faith!” the apostles ask Jesus in today’s Gospel. And two thousand years later, we—Jesus’ disciples now—are still asking him to essentially do that for us as well. It’s an honest prayer. We want our faith increased. We want to believe more fully than we do. We want to believe in a way that will eliminate doubt, because doubt is so…uncertain. It is a sometimes frightening place to explore. And we are afraid that with little faith and a lot of doubt, doubt will win out. We are crying out to Jesus—like those first apostles—for more than we have. But Jesus—in that way that Jesus does—turns it all back on us. He tells us that we shouldn’t be worrying about increasing our faith. We should rather be concerned about the mustard seed of faith that we have right now.

Think of that for a moment. Think of what a mustard seed really is. It’s one of the smallest things we can see. It’s a minuscule thing. It’s the side of a period at the end of a sentence or a dot on a lower-case i. It’s that small. Jesus tells us that with that little bit of faith—that small amount of real faith—we can tell a mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea.” In other words, those of us who are afraid that a whole lot of doubt can overwhelm that little bit of faith have nothing to worry about. Because even a little bit of faith—even a mustard seed of faith—is more powerful than an ocean of doubt. A little seed of faith is the most powerful thing in the world, because that tiny amount of faith will drive us and push us and motivate us to do incredible things. And doing those things, spurred on and nourished by that little bit of faith, does make a difference in the world.

Occasionally we do need to ask ourselves: what do we need to get to heaven? And the answer is not what we expect. It’s easy for us to think: the big things are what get us to heaven. Must we believe everything and then somehow t will all be made clear to us? Must be we do things other people can see—or the things God—way up there—can see? No. Not at all.

The things that win us our salvation are the small things. The thing that wins us our salvation is our faith. And all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed. Even if we have 99% of doubt and 1% of faith, that 1% wins out over the rest, again and again.

We are going to doubt. We are going to sometimes gaze into that void and have a hard time seeing, for certain—without any doubt—that God truly is there. And that’s all right to do. But if we still go on loving, if we still go on serving, if we still go on trying to bring the sacred and holy into our midst and into this world even in the face of that 99% of doubt, that is our mustard seed of faith at work. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is what loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves does. It furthers the Kingdom of God in our midst, even when we might be doubting that there is even a Kingdom of God.

Now, yes, I understand that it’s weird to hear a priest get up here and say that atheists and agnostics and other doubters can teach us lessons about faith, But I think God does work in that way sometimes. I have no doubt that God can increase our faith my any means necessary, even despite our doubts. I have no doubt that God can work even in the mustard-sized faith found deep within someone who claims to be an atheist. And if God can do that in the life and example of an atheist, imagine what God can do in our lives—in us, who are committed Christians who stand up every Sunday in church and profess our faiths in the Creed we are about to recite together.

So, let us cultivate that mustard-sized faith inside us. Let’s not fret over how small it is. Let’s not worry about weighing it on the scale against the doubt in our lives. Let’s not despair over how small it is. Rather, let us realize that even that mustard seed of faith within us can do incredible things in our lives and in the lives of those around us. And in doing those small things, we all are bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.


7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

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