Sunday, October 28, 2012

22 Pentecost

October 28, 2012

Mark 10.46-52

+ A long time ago, when I was ordained first a deacon, then a priest, I made this promise, which can be found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 538. I promised at my ordinations,

“…I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New testaments to the be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation, and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.”

That last part especially—the part about promising to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church”—has very important to me.

As most of you know, as far as loyalty is concerned, my first loyalty is always to the Episcopal Church, as far as churches are concerned. Now I shouldn’t continue to tease them about this, but I have to. I think that the majority of the Vestry at St. Stephen’s thinks I am a secret Roman Catholic.

At our last vestry meeting, I heard a near-unanimous outcry from them expressing their dislike of the use of the term “Smells and Bells” in our Wednesday night Mass. Now, I understand where they’re coming from. And no, they don’t really think I’m a secret Roman Catholic. At least, I hope not.

Despite the fact that some of you might think I am a secret Roman Catholic, all I am is a former Roman Catholic.

But if I was to say I was anything other than Episcopalian, I don’t think I would be able to say that the Roman Catholic Church would be the place I would lean toward. I would say that much of my deepest interest, as you have heard me say many times, outside of the Episcopal Church, is actually with the Eastern Orthodox Church. I love the Orthodox Church. Well, I’m not all that fond of some of their social and political views. But I do love the majority of their theological and spiritual outlook on life. I love their liturgy. I love their down-to-earth, balanced approach everything. And I love the tradition they strive to uphold. And I really love their views of prayer.

I have been reading a wonderful book by a contemporary American Orthodox writer by the name of Frederica Mathewes Green. If you do not know Mathewes-Green, I would recommend you read her. She is a good spiritual writer. The book of hers that I’ve read and love is called, very simply, The Jesus Prayer. And I love it.

The Jesus Prayer, for those of you who might not know, is a prayer very popular in the Eastern Orthodox Chrurch. In fact, it is kind of the “Gem” of the Eastern Church. We’ll talk about the actual Jesus prayer in just a moment. First, let’s take a look at where the Jesus Prayer came from.

This morning, in our Gospel, we find the kernel from which the Jesus Prayer arises. And I really enjoy our Gospel reading this morning. It is a story that at first seems to be leading us in one direction.

We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we find that he is blind.

Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going to happen. We know where this story is going. We know Bartemaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see.

But the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel like a wonderful little treasure.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

This prayer is essentially the basis for the popular Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple. But, obviously, according to the story, the prayer is important. Jesus does what he is asked. He has mercy on this man and heals him.

So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer.

Jesus occasionally gives us advice in the gospels on how we should pray. The first one that probably comes to mind probably is the Lord’s prayer. But here we find a prayer very different than the Lord’s prayer. The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.

The prayer we hear this morning cuts right to very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart.

The words of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray. Here it is, summed up for us. Here are the words we long to use in those prayers without words.

“Jesus, have mercy on me!”

Now the actual Jesus Prayer is a only slightly more expanded. The Jesus Prayer is:

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God [or Son of the living God], have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Or slight variations of those words. The prayer we heard this morning is essentially the same.

In the Eastern Church, the “Jesus Prayer” it is also called “the prayer of the heart.” That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer would be the words of our heart. The fact that it is so simple is what makes the Jesus prayer so popular. Anyone can memorize it and anyone pray it with true meaning. It is a prayer we can repeat to ourselves over and over again. In fact, it is a prayer that demands to be repeated. It’s almost impossible not to repeat it.

What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and addresses our very own limitations. It is the prayer of absolute humility.

“Have mercy on me.”

We are humans, with all the limitations and shortcomings that entails. But rather than groaning about it and bewailing our misfortune, in this prayer we are able to acknowledge it and to simply offer it up. Like Bartimeaus, we can simply bring it before Jesus, release it, and then walk away healed.

There is no room for haughtiness when praying this prayer. The person we are when we pray it is who we really are. When all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in and takes over for us. This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we “present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—the Jesus prayer—such a popular prayer for so many.

And this prayer does not even have to be about us. We can use this prayer when praying for others. How easy it is to simply pray:

Jesus, have mercy on her, or him, or them.

It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple words can pack such a wallop. We don’t have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and petitioning God. We simply need to open our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very similar to the words of the Jesus prayer.

“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”

So, like Bartemeaus, let us pray what is in our heart. Let us open ourselves completely and humbly to Jesus, whom follow and serve. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time.

Like Bartemaeus, we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking through into our lives. And when that blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow him on the way.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

21 Pentecost

October 21, 2012
Baptism of Julia Lisbeth Gelinske

Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45

+ Yesterday, our St. Stephen’s delegation to Diocesan Convention returned home. I do have to say, it was a good Convention. Maybe I should definite “good” It was good in the sense that it was not a contentious convention. No one seemed to be jockeying for position, as we often seen at such gatherings. And, trust me, I have seen jockeying at these conventions. And so have many of you.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also see some jockeying for position. I think we can all somewhat relate to this story. We have all had our own Jameses and Johns. We’ve all had them as co-workers, or fellow students, or simply fellow parishioners. They are the ones who—while we quietly labor, quietly do our duties—they sort of weasel their way up the ladder. They jockey for position.

They are the ones who try to get a better place in line by butting in from of everyone else. They are the ones who drive us—who work and sacrifice and try to do the good thing—they drive us crazy. Or maybe…and maybe none of us want to admit it …maybe, they are the ones that we relate to the most in this morning’s Gospel.

Maybe we are ourselves at times are the James and the Johns. Maybe we ourselves are the Sons or Daughters of Thunder.

Whatever the case may be, the fact is James and John are really missing out. Like some of the other apostles, they just don’t get it. They don’t quite understand what Jesus is getting at when he is talking about the last being first. They don’t understand him when he says that we are called to serve and not be served. They just don’t understand that simple virtue of humility. Their view of Christianity—their view of where they stand in relation to Jesus—is a constant jockeying for position. And many of us to this day feel the same way in our own lives, in our work and in our faith lives.

One of my dear friends this past week (not a parishioner here), admitted to me and a group of other friends how much he loves the Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead—a book that has now become somewhat popular again due to our current political debate sin this country. Now, to be clear. He never actually read it. But his view of it—as it’s been summarized for him—is that it is not our duty to help anyone, unless we help ourselves first. And even then, it is not our duty to help anyone who refuses to help themselves.

Now this friend of mine is a faithful Christian and a faithful Church-goer. But when I tried to explain that Jesus is very clear on this issue and that Jesus and Ayn Rand hold completely different views about things, he said sort of rolled his eyes and poo-pooed me for being too soft.

What today’s Gospel shows us is that Jesus is calling us to something much bigger than we—or my friend, or Ayn Rand for that matter—probably fully understand. I think a lot of us—even those of us who come to church every Sunday—sometimes look at Christianity as a somewhat quaint, peace-loving religion. We dress up, we come to church on Sunday, we sing hymns, we hear about God’s love, we receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine, and then we go home and…and we don’t think about it again until the next week.

But the Christianity of Jesus is not soft. It is not just a whitewashed, quaint religion. The Christianity of Jesus, as we hopefully have all figured out here at St. Stephen’s, is a radical faith. It is a faith that challenges—that makes us uncomfortable when we get comfortable, that riles us when we have become complacent. It is a faith that works well here in church, on Sunday morning, but also should motivate us to get up from these pews and go out into the world and live out the faith we have learned here by serving others. And it is this fact that many of us might find a bit frightening.

Like James and John, we all want to gain heaven. We want a nice place beside Jesus in that world-to-come. But few of us want to live out our faith in all that do and say right now. And even fewer of us are ready to be servants—to be slaves for others.

We don’t always want to serve the lowliest among us. We don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. We don’t want to taste from the same cup of anguish that Jesus drank from on the night before he was murdered. And we sure don’t want to be humble sometimes.

I will admit, I am in that boat sometimes. I sometimes don’t want to be a servant or slave to others. I don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. And although I might try—and not always that hard—I am not so good at being humble sometimes.

But we all, I think, at least here at St. Stephen’s, are trying. We all making the effort in some way. As followers of Jesus, we are reminded that we are called truly to be servants to each other and especially to those who need to be served. We are asked as followers to do something uncomfortable. We are to asked to take a long, hard look at the world around us and to recognize the fact that there are people living in need in our midst. And we are called to serve them.

What we cannot do is ignore them. When I ignore those in need, when I don’t serve, when I don’t stand up against injustice—I am made very aware that in that moment, I am not following Jesus. If I don’t do those things, but I still stand up here and call myself a Christian, then I have truly become a “Son of Thunder.”

And, for most of us, that is exactly what it sounds like when we want the benefits of our faith, without making the sacrifices of our faith. In those instances, we truly do sound like a low, distant thunder. We cannot bulldoze our way into heaven by riding roughshod over those we should be serving along the way.

For us, as followers of Jesus, our job is simply to love God and love our neighbor as yourselves—and when we do, in our lives, in our work, in the way we perceive the world around us, then a natural humility will come over us. In those moments, we will recognize that God is in control. Not us. What is more humbling than that realization in our lives?

Again, here is another example of this radical Christianity. It carries through in how we serve each other. Christians are not expected to bring anyone to Jesus through an arrogant attitude. We are not expected to come charging into people’s lives, making them tremble before us in fear. We are not expected to thump our Bibles and wave the Words of Jesus before people in a desperate attempt to win souls for Jesus. We aren’t forcing Jesus on anyone, nor should we. In doing so, we dominate people. We coerce them into believing. But if we simply serve those Jesus calls us to serve, with love and charity and humility, sometimes that says more than any Sunday sermon or curbside rant.

Think of the words Jesus could use. He could use, “power” to mean “dominance,” or “oppression” or “force.” But he doesn’t. Rather, Jesus uses the words “serve” and “servant”

Certainly we are given plenty of “power” as Christians. In our baptism, in which baby Julia will soon participate, we are given power—but this power we are given is the power to die in Christ and to be raised into a new life with Christ. That is what we celebrate every time we celebrate a Baptism and renew our baptismal vows. That is what we celebrate when we think back to what happened at our own baptisms. We celebrate and we live out in our lives this power—this power that we are dead to our former selves and alive—alive in a powerful and amazing way—with Christ.

Baptism empowers us—it makes us something more than we were before—but not in the way we think of as empowering. It empowers us by making us true servants to each other. It not a strength that overpowers others. It is rather a strength rather that empowers us to serve each other and God. It strengthens us to bear the anguish and despair of this life. It strengthens us to persevere and to live our lives fully in Christ.

In all of this, Jesus is telling us that we are to be servants—servants not only to God, but to each other as well. I, as a priest, who stands here at this altar at each celebration of the Eucharist —I am not the only one called to be a minister of God. We are all called to be ministers of God. By our very baptism, by the Eucharist we share at this altar each Sunday, we are called by God to serve each other.

We are not here on Sunday morning to be served—to be waited upon, to be lavished with gifts. We are here to serve. And it is this sense of service that we must take with us out of here into the world.

James and John eventually figured this out. They went on from that day and served Jesus in the world. Eventually , they would both die for Jesus as martyrs—as very witnesses to Christ by their deaths.

So, for those of us who get angry at the sons of thunder in our lives—be patient. For those of who recognize ourselves as a son or daughter of thunder—relax. Jesus always finds a way to break through our barriers—if we let him. It is this breaking through, after all, that makes our Christianity so radical. So, let us serve God. Let us serve each other in whatever ways God leads us to serve.

In a few very short moments, we will be reminded again what it means to serve when we renew our baptismal vows. In doing so, remember that we are empowered in ways in which we might not even have been fully aware. By the very fact that we are baptized and fed with Jesus’ Body and Blood, we live out our service in the world. And when we do, we just may find that the thunder we hear is the thunder not of arrogance or pride, but rather the thunder of the kingdom of God breaking through into our midst.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

19 Pentecost

October 7, 2012

Mark 10.2-16

+ Most of us, of course, who gather here on Sunday mornings, don’t realize that we actually have a somewhat separate congregation on Wednesday nights, at our “Smells and Bells” Mass. There are some of our new members—as well as some of our so-called “proxy” members—who only going to that service And one of the things some of those people like are the fact that, on Wednesday, we always commemorate a saint. I always preach on Wednesday nights, about a different saint and I, in fact, use a couple of resources from the lives of the saints.

Now I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but usually those stories are very interesting. At least to most of the people on Wednesday nights. Poor Thom Marubbio might not share that opinion. The poor man! On more than one occasion, I’ve seen him quietly rolling his eyes at some of these strange saints we encounter on Wednesday nights. But I give him credit, he does keep coming to the service each week.

The saint we commemorated this past week was not, as you might think, St. Francis, who we will be honoring later today when we do the blessing of the Animals. The saint we commemorated this past week was a French saint—and a fairly contemporary one too—contemporary in this case being someone who lived just over a hundred years ago. She was a Carmelite nun who died on September 30, 1897 by the name of St. Therese of Liseux.

St. Therese led a very sheltered life by most our modern standards no doubt. She joined this very cloistered convent in Normandy in France when she was 14 years old and died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 years. She did not lead what we would consider an exciting, adventure-filled life by any sense of the word.

But, in her short life, she did do one thing that was pretty extraordinary. She developed a theology that is still very useful to all of us today. Her theology was a simple one. It was called “The Little Way.” And she used this “Little Way” to show that anyone, even in very ordinary, normal circumstances, could truly know God in a very intimate way.

The key to her “Little Way” was to truly become child-like in our relationship with God. For Therese, we needed to truly become like little children in our trust and appreciation of God. And this way of following Jesus is still reaping rewards in our own day.

Certainly, the basis for St. Therese’s “Little Way” was our Gospel reading for today. As people were bringing children to Jesus, he says,

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

So, what does Jesus mean when he talks about the Kingdom of heaven and children? Well, he is talking quite bluntly, I believe. He is making it clear that we need to simplify. We need to simplify our faith. We need to clear away all the muck, all the distractions, all those negative things we have accumulated over the years regarding our relationship with God.

Now, to be fair, the Church and Religion in general have piled many of this negative things on us. And that is unfortunate. Too often, as believers, we tend to complicate our faith life and our theology. We get caught up in things like Dogma and Canon laws and rules and Rubrics and following the letter of the law. We get so caught up in doing what we are told is the “right thing,” that we lose sight of this pure and holy relationship with God. We forget why we are doing the right thing.

For Jesus, he saw what happened when people got too caught up in doing the right thing. The scribes and Pharisees were very caught up in doing the right thing, in following the letter of the Law. But in doing so, they lost sight of God. They lost sight of the meaning behind the Law.

Jesus is telling them—and us—that we need to simplify. We need to refocus. We need to become like children in our faith-life. Now that isn’t demeaning. It isn’t sweet and sentimental. Becoming children means taking a good, honest look at what we believe.

As followers of Jesus, it does not have to be complicated. We just need to remind ourselves that, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will show us God. Following Jesus means knowing that God is a loving, accepting and always-present Parent. Our job as followers is to connect with this loving Parent, to worship and pray to God. Our job is to be an imitator, like Jesus, of this loving, all-accepting God in our relationship with others.

When we do that—when we become imitators of our loving God, when we love as God loves us—the Kingdom of God becomes present. But the fact is, the Kingdom of God is not for people who complicate it. The Kingdom is one of those things that is very elusive. If we quantify it and examine it too closely, it just sort of wiggles away from us. If we try to define what the Kingdom is, or try to explain it in any kind of detail, it loses meaning. It disappears and become mirage-like.

But if we simply do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus—if we simply follow Jesus, imitate our God and love one another—the Kingdom becomes real. It becomes a reality in our very midst. And whatever separations we imagine between ourselves and God and one another, simply disappear.

This is what I love about being a follower of Jesus. I love the fact that despite all the dogmas and structures and rules the Church might bring us, following Jesus is simply that—following Jesus. It is very simple.

But it can also be very difficult, especially when we still get caught up in all the rules and complications of organized religion. And we do get caught up in those things.

Because following Jesus can be so simple, we find ourselves often frustrated. We want order. We want rules. We want systematic ways of understanding God and religion.

Simplicity sometimes scares us. Becoming childlike means depending on God instead of ourselves. Becoming childlike means shedding our independence sometimes, and we don’t like doing that.

Sometimes complication means busywork. And sometimes it simply is easier to get caught up in busywork, then to actually go out there and follow Jesus and be imitators of God and love others. . Sometimes it is easier to sit and debate the fine points of religion, then it is to go out and actually live out our faith in our lives and to worship God.

But, as Jesus shows us, when we do such things, when we become cantankerous grown-ups, that’s when the system starts breaking down. That’s when we get distracted. That’s when we get led astray from following Jesus. That is when we “grow up” and become cranky, bitter grown-ups rather than loving, wonder-filled children.

It is good to be wonder-filled children. It is good to look around us at the world and see a place in which God still breaks through to us. It is good to see that God lives and works through others.

So, let us be wonder-filled children. Let us truly be awed and amazed at what it means to follow Jesus. Let God be a source of joy in our lives. And let us love each other simply, as children love. Let us love in that wonderfully child-like way, in which our hearts simply fill up to the brim with love. Let us burn with that love in a young and vibrant way.

Being a Christian—following Jesus—means staying young and child-like always. Following Jesus is our fountain of youth, so to speak.

So let us become children for the sake of the Kingdom. And when we do, that Kingdom will flower in us like eternal youth.

7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

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