Friday, December 14, 2012

Senior Sermon, December 14, 2012

Hiya folks.  So at VTS each senior gets one chance to preach at the Noonday Eucharist.  Today was my day.  While I didn't quote from this text, I feel I should credit the overall arch of this sermon to Henri Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son.  I highly recommend this book, Nouwen is insightful and I think a lot of what he goes through is relevant to so many of our lives.

Matthew 11.16-19
16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.” 
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Games have rules.  This is something that I learned as a child.  And if you don’t follow the rules you can ruin the game for everybody.  I know for me at least when I was a child, following the rules of a game became all important, you could not change the rules because that would be tantamount to cheating, the worst of all sins.  You learn quickly enough that the games that children play are preparation for the lives they will live as adults.  Life is like a game, it too is filled with rules, rules that we are promised will even the playing field, rules that at least seem to make the game the same for everyone.  There is nothing more frustrating than someone who won’t play by the rules.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ compares his opponents to children in the market place, children complaining about their playmates,  “You are supposed to dance when we play the flute and mourn when we mourn, these are the rules and you are not following them.”  Of course those rebellious rule breakers are none other than John the Baptist and Jesus.  Both of these men are found to be offensive in their own unique ways.  John the Baptist was an ascetic; he lived out in the wilderness, wore ugly hair shirts and ate a disgusting diet of locusts and honey.  That guy was a weirdo.  But he was nothing compared to Jesus, who seemed like he could be really cool if only he would stop partying with all of those losers.  The world had set standards of conduct which John and Jesus did not live up to.  Neither of them could satisfactorily fit into polite society, and what was really infuriating is that they didn't even seem to care.
Neither of them was dissuaded from their paths by other people’s impression of them.  They just did not  care how they appeared in the eyes of others. Jesus in particular was not dissuaded by the shocking accusation that he was a drunk and a glutton; it did not stop him from spending time with tax-collectors and sinners.  

Sadly the world hasn't really changed much.  We have certain standards of dress, standards of speech, standards of conduct.  The societies in which we live have both explicit and implicit guidelines in place that regulate how we live our lives.  

A big part of this is appearance.  We can’t help but to judge the world and the people in it by how it all looks.  We are constantly told that we have to look the part.  It is drilled into us that without the appropriate clothes, home, and car no one will ever find us attractive or be willing to give us a suitable job.

This does not just apply to the secular world.  If anything it may be worse among Christians.  We certainly seem to have so many more reasons to judge each other than the secular world does.  Even in Church you have to look the part.  After all, without a full church, a big endowment and a beautiful liturgy how will we ever be able to be a shining light of Christ in the world?   

Of course we know that this isn't true, we know that at our core - appearances don’t matter, but do we live that way?  And more importantly, do we treat each other that way?  It is so easy to get caught up in ‘how things should be’ that even though we may know we should let our judgments go, we can’t. 
The problem is that our judgment of the world around us is so wrapped up in our understanding of virtue that we cannot destroy one without uprooting the other.  So often in our attempts to nurture our virtuous selves we also windup nurturing our resentment towards those who are not similarly virtuous. 

I know I am guilty of this sort of behavior year round, but I have become particularly aware of it around this time of the year. You see, I have spent so many years trying to have that perfect, yet seemingly elusive, Advent experience.  I know that if I could just get Advent right it would make Christmas that much more magnificent and beautiful.  And every year I think to myself why can’t other people observe the season of Advent in the right way?  How am I supposed to reach a place of stillness with all of this chaos and Christmas music?  And every year all I wind up getting out of Advent is frustration and indignation.
Unfortunately though this is something that infects all of our lives, this judgment disguised as virtue.  Those little questions that nag at us, like “why can’t they get the liturgy right?” “Why can’t she dress like an adult?” “How can he possibly think he is suitable for the priesthood?” Again and again we turn our judgment outward, allowing ourselves to become obsessed with how we think things should be, and we wind up missing the moments that truly matter.  We wind up playing music and dancing when we should be mourning, and weeping when we should sing.

So how do we break free from our false notions of righteousness, from our resentment and judgment?  I think there is a clue in the last verse when Jesus says, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
This wisdom is not in us, not while we spin ourselves in circle, chasing our own tails.  All of our rules and virtue do not seem to be able to save us from ourselves.  No, this wisdom belongs to Christ and it is only when we stop in our tracks and look to Christ that we can get an idea of what that wisdom may look like in our own lives. Christ vindicated wisdom on the cross, releasing us from our worldly bonds, turning many of the rules that we live by on their head, and for this reason freeing ourselves from our own expectations and anxieties may be the hardest thing we ever do.  But once we do, once we let go of trying to make the world conform to our own rules, and instead conform ourselves to Christ, then we can find the relief and gratitude that comes from surrendering ourselves to God.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sermon for Sunday November 11, 2012

“All that is gold does not glitter,” This is the first line of a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien.  And it strikes me as a rather fine summary of today’s Gospel story.  There are two distinctly different kinds of people represented by this gospel; on the one hand we have the scribes who most certainly do glitter.  They dress well, are extremely sociable and give impressive and lengthy prayers.  They are seen and listened to, and they are everyone’s favorite dinner guests.  Along with them are the rich folks who give their large sums of money, they too are seen and heard. 
But on the other hand we are shown a solitary woman.  She is alone, she has no husband, no status and no riches or fine clothing.  No one is listening to her or longing to invite her to dinner.  She is the very picture of anonymity.  Even the sound of her pennies as they drop into the treasury is lost beneath the sound of all the other offerings.  Only Jesus seems to notice her and he brings her to the attention of his disciples saying to them “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  This is a truly astounding thing to hear, one that turns conventional wisdom on its head.  How can two copper pennies be more than all of that other money?
What is Jesus really trying to tell us about this woman?  Is she an example of the power of faith, and the virtue of giving? Or should we lament this widow’s plight and cry out against institutionalized poverty and injustice?  These are not bad lessons to learn and if we are moved by either of them then I say Amen, but there is something else at work in this passage as well.
You see Jesus does not exactly praise the woman for her giving, nor does he exactly condemn the rich for theirs.  What he does do is invite his disciples, and us, to look at the world a little differently, to see the real differences between the rich and the poor, to see what real sacrifice actually looks like.  Again and again in the Gospel Jesus moves the spotlight away from the beautiful, stately, wealthy and seemingly important people and instead focuses on people that maybe we would rather not notice at all, the poor, the broken, the outcast.  Not only are we meant to notice the marginalized, but Jesus beckons us to look beyond appearances and see them as he sees them, as God sees them.   Jesus knows and wants us to know as well that “all that is gold does not glitter.” But it is just so easy to get distracted by shiny things. 
There is a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that has stuck with me since I first saw the movie 23 years ago.  After solving mysteries, fighting Nazis and narrowly escaping death half a dozen times Indiana is faced with the task of finding the Holy Grail in order to save his father’s life.  So as his father lays on the brink of death, Indiana navigates his way through trials that test his worthiness till finally he makes his way into a room filled with shelves of gold and silver chalices each one more beautiful than the next.  The room shimmers and glows as the light bounces off all the precious metal and jewel encrusted vessels.  In this place, out of all of these choices, Indiana has to figure out which one is the actual Holy Grail.  
Now I was 12 when I first saw this movie but I remember my reaction to that room, how beautiful I thought it was, and I remember my excitement as I waited to see which chalice Indiana was going to pick.  Would it be the biggest chalice or the one with the prettiest jewels?  And I admit I was pretty surprised and somewhat disappointed to discover that the Holy Grail turned out to be a plain, and somewhat dirty, wooden cup. 
And yet, in a very real way Jesus is that plain wooden chalice.  His whole life as we understand it is a lesson in looking closer.  Born of an insignificant Jewish girl, and raised as a carpenter’s son, he travelled the countryside with no home and no money and he died a seemingly shameful death surrounded by criminals.  Nothing about him said King of Kings, or Son of God, but we know that even though he did not glitter he is the truest of all gold.  So when he saw this widow give away what little she had, without any thought of recognition or reward, he saw his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, that topsy turvy place where the first are last, the greatest are the servants of all and copper coins given by poor widows are greater than any offering of the rich.  And this is the challenge that we are faced with.  To look closer, to see God’s Kingdom working all around us, and to discover that it is in those we least expect, in the homeless, the old, the strange and forgotten people who live on the fringes of our society, it is in them that the Kingdom of God shines most brightly.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Storms, Reformation Day and Barbara Brown Taylor

So I promised that I would be more diligent about writing in this journal and this is my attempt to do so.

This week has been rather eventful.  As everyone knows, Sandy made her way up the East coast on Monday and Tuesday.  We made it through pretty relatively unscathed.  There were a few downed trees on campus and we lost power for about 15 hours or so.  Because of the storm classes were canceled on Monday and Tuesday which was great at the time but now means that a bunch of the classes are a week behind.  I spent most of Tuesday curled up in front of the fireplace reading "A Storm of Swords", not very productive, but really nice.

Things were back in full swing on Wednesday.  I don't have any classes that day but I still had plenty of work to do, both studying and as a Sacristan.  Wednesday was also Halloween and traditionally the Halloween party is held in 'Maywood', my dorm.  Because of the storm this party was kept pretty low key, but there was still quite a bit of dressing up, which was nice.  We also honored a 'Reformation Day' tradition that started last year.  Last year an amazing student and her husband dressed up as John Calvin and Martin Luther because as they put it 'On Halloween you are supposed to dress up as something scary', and just before midnight they got the idea to nail the 95 thesis to the door of one of the more Catholic professors on campus.  So a large group of us joined them in this endeavor and it was funny and ridiculous   That was last year, this year we did not have a scroll of the 95 thesis so instead we went to the same professors house and sang 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God' in its entirety.  Tradition honored.

This weekend has been topped off in a truly great way.  VTS had the honor of hosting Barbara Brown Taylor this Friday and Saturday.  Friday she gave a wonderful lecture based on her upcoming book, and that was great, but today I got the chance to take part in an all day writing seminar.  I am glad I was able to get this experience.  Barbara Brown Taylor was very engaging and down to earth and there was a lot for us to learn from the experiences she shared with us.

So that was my week, I will try to do another update next Friday.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jesus and the Leper: A Narrative Sermon for February 12

Sermon Mark 1.40-45
“If you choose you can make me clean,” he used to pray these words, but that was back when he still had hope, back when he still prayed. Any hope of being healed, any hope of returning to society had left him long ago. He has been cast out and he lives on the scraps that others cast away. He lives life from a distance now, watching and listening but voiceless and nameless, a bitter ghost of who he once was. The priest’s declaration was final “you are unclean,” and with those words, words that never stop ringing in his ears, he was torn away from his family, his livelihood, his religion – everything that had made him human.

So he sits in the dark outside the city walls, listening to whispers of faraway conversations which float to him on the night air. Lately he’s been hearing a lot about a man from Nazareth, a man named Jesus. They say he can heal the sick and cast out demons. Could such things be true? He saw Jesus when he had entered the city. He had not looked powerful enough to cast out demons. The leper, bracing himself against the cold blackness of the night, laughs to himself, “I do not believe it. After all, nothing good come out of Nazareth.” And yet, inside of him something begins to stir, and as he falls into a restless sleep, he hears a small voice calling to him from far away, “If you choose, this man will make you clean.”

Did you know that hugs make you live longer? You only need a mere four hugs a day to reap the benefits, and you don’t need to get them from a person: you can hug your dog if you like, but contact with someone else that also wants to have contact with you is key. But what happens if you don’t get those hugs? Is the issue simply a matter of living a shorter life? Psychologists have actually done studies, not about hugs but about rejection. In one study people played a 5 minute computer game of ball toss. The person they were playing against would either be accepting by throwing them the ball or would ostracize the subject by keeping the ball away. What they found is that not much needs to happen to set a person on the path to despair and hostility. A mere 5 minutes of feeling rejected, by a complete stranger; that is all. Often worse than physical pain, the pain of rejection is very real. We are social animals; we need our flock to make us whole. But there are always outsiders, sheep that the rest of the flock have pushed out into the wilderness, into a solitary existence. A lone sheep will not survive, alone in the wilderness. But who will even notice that he is gone? Who will even care?

It is early morning and the leper opens his eyes as the sun peaks its head above the horizon, flooding the sky with shades of amber and violet. He can see a dark solitary figure walking on the road in front of him. Without really knowing why, the leper gets to his feet and moves closer, who is this person, wandering alone in such a deserted place? Something inside him tells him who the man is. His heart begins to race. All he can hear is the blood pounding through his head.
Before he has time to think, the leper runs. He runs so hard that in an instant he is breathless, and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet he practically screams, “If you choose you can make me clean!” Wet with tears the words tumble out of him, pleading and desperate. In response he hears Silence, perhaps the silence lasts only moments but for him centuries pass. Prostrate at Jesus’ feet the leper cannot bring himself to look up, he doesn’t dare, but in that moment of silence he becomes acutely, painfully aware of himself, his dirty tattered rags, the scent of rotting flesh that hangs in the air around him wherever he goes, his complete and utter brokenness, and in that moment he panics “what am I doing? Who am I that this man from Nazareth would do anything for me?" In that moment he decides to flee when suddenly he feels the warm touch of a hand on his cheek. He can’t remember the last time anyone has touched him. The leper lifts his head and looks into eyes the likes of which he has never seen before, eyes that are filled with compassion.

Jesus was moved with pity. That is what our English translation says. And while the sentiment is technically true, the true depth of what Mark is saying about Jesus is utterly lost. The word σπλαγχνισθεὶς is so much more than mere pity. The ancient Greek use of the word refers to the choicest inner parts of a sacrifice and can even refer to the sacrifice as a whole. The word we translate as ‘pity’ comes from the word for sacrifice. But σπλαγχνισθεὶς never meant just mere pity. The original word meant a force of emotion, compassionate mercy, a deep sorrow, a burning inside. Jesus burns with compassion and mercy for the leper. And in response to that burning Jesus touches him. We know of course that Jesus will not contract the man’s disease, we know there is no real danger there, but the disease is not really the point, with a single touch Jesus takes the ritual uncleanliness of the leper onto himself. And before long he will make that same sacrifice for everyone.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” Behind Jesus rays of gold and yellow flare out across the sky as the sun breaks free of the horizon. When Jesus speaks there is no hesitation in his voice, “I do choose, be made clean.”
And he is made clean. He had not dared to believe, not really. But there he is, a clean man. Not just his body, but the bitterness, the despair, everything that being a leper had made him was gone.

He could have stayed there forever, kneeling at the feet of his savior. But the shepherd does not find the sheep and then stay in the wilderness, the sheep must return to the flock. Suddenly, the world starts moving again at whirlwind speeds. Jesus takes the man by his arm lifting him to his feet. “Go, Speak to no one,” Jesus says, “Show yourself to the priests,” “do as Moses commanded.” The miraculous moment has passed and he is being pushed back into the world.

The sun has conquered the sky and there is nothing but light when he makes his way back. Newly purified the man enters the city. He truly does mean to do as Jesus commanded him, but as he walks to the temple he realizes a song has been dancing around in the back of his mind, how long has that been there? He wonders.
“Praise ye the Lord” sang the voice in his head “He gathers the outcasts of Israel, he heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds” The man stops in his tracks, “why should I go to the priests?” He asks to no one in particular, “Who has need of Priests when you have looked into the eyes of God?”
He turns and heads to the center of town. I have to tell them, he thinks to himself, I have to tell all of them, “If you let him he will make you clean!”

This sermon was preached at the 5pm service at Saint Mary's Arlington, VA.