Sunday, December 20, 2009

How can I keep from singing?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation
I hear the clear though far-off hymn that hails a new creation
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

When Mary heard Elizabeth’s proclamation in today’s Gospel that she was blessed by God, her response was to sing God’s praise. In response to hearing that God’s love and power were manifest in her, Mary could not keep from singing.

God is mighty. God is good. God’s promise to look out for us will be kept. God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.

Those are great thoughts. It’s good to know that God will take care of us.

Except when things aren’t going well.
Except when God seems absent.
Except when it seems like everything is falling apart.

Earth’s lamentation is all too real.

Mary knew about Earth’s lamentation. As an engaged young woman who unexpectedly found herself with child, she could have been stoned to death, according to the law.

Elizabeth knew about Earth’s lamentation. As an aging childless woman, her place in her society and her livelihood were anything but well-established. Her husband Zachariah continued to serve as a priest in Jerusalem, and so her family had a steady income. But it was a long and dangerous commute between their home in the hill country and the temple where he served from time to time. Were he to die, a widow in that society without grown children to provide for her would have no guarantee of even enough to subsist on.

The hungry, the lowly, and the outsiders knew about Earth’s lamentation then and know it today.

Last Tuesday, 270 hungry people needed meals at the soup kitchen in Morristown. The international non-profit organization Bread for the World indicates that 35.5 million people in the United States—including 12.6 million children—live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States. Globally, 1.02 billion people are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes.

In Uganda, homosexuality currently carries a penalty of up to life in prison, and legislation is pending that could increase the potential sentence to include the death penalty.

Betsey Hall of Homeless Solutions, Inc. in Morristown estimates that demand for housing in Morris County’s five homeless shelters is up 20% from this time last year, and even more remarkably, 54% of people entering the shelter her organization runs are employed full-time when they become homeless.

In Detroit Michigan, where it looks like God is sending me for the next chapter in my life and ministry starting two weeks from now, the official unemployment rate is at 17%, and local analysts estimate that the total number of people involuntarily out of work or involuntarily working part-time approaches 50% of the workforce.

Major depression afflicts approximately 15 million American adults each year.

I could go on and on, but I think it’s fairly obvious that Earth’s lamentation is real indeed. The poor, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, and the lowly suffer greatly.

There’s one reading of this Gospel that’s been all-too-common through the years. This reading of the Gospel says that the suffering of the poor and outsiders is nothing to be concerned with, because God will provide for them in heaven. The labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill accused street preachers of the early 20th century of promising the poor that they’d “eat pie in the sky when they die” but doing nothing to help them eat now.

Life is a vale of tears, we suffer through it now, and then God rewards us in heaven. We don't need to worry about suffering. There’s no need to *do* anything to improve the lot of the poor and outcast. God will take care of it.

Indeed, to alleviate the suffering of the poor is a bad thing, in this telling, because it deprives them of the opportunity to store up treasure in heaven. It is this kind of religion that Karl Marx was correct in calling the “opiate of the masses.”

And that is certainly one way we could hear Mary’s song. God will take care of the poor, so neither those of us who are poor nor those of us inclined to stand in solidarity with them need to concern ourselves with suffering because God will take care of everything.

There’s earth’s lamentation, and then there’s the song that lets us tune it out, because God will provide in the world to come. You'll eat pie in the sky when you die.

But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is not in some heaven to arrive in an age to come. Mary’s song the Magnificat is not in the future tense. The reign of God is at hand. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.

The presence of misery in the world means that we cannot claim that good has already triumphed, that suffering and death are no more, and that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

To push God’s reign off to some future world to come, where all that is wrong now will be made right, such that we needn’t even trouble ourselves with present injustice numbs us to human suffering.

So we are left with the present: even now, as we worship here, the Kingdom of God arrives.

In the Magnificat, Mary sings of God’s great reversals. The hungry are filled with good things, but the rich are sent empty away. The proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts – the self-delusion that they are truly great and important – and the lowly are lifted up. As the collect says, things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

That’s a powerful message. Scary. Dangerous. I’ve found a number of writers who have claimed that the military dictatorship of Guatamala banned public recitation of the Magnificat in the early 1980’s because it was considered revolutionary. In my research in the past week, I haven’t been able to track down whether this is historical fact or pious legend, but in some ways, the historicity of it isn’t really what’s important. These are dangerous, transformative, revolutionary words. They do turn the social order on its head.

And it gets even more exciting when we consider that this isn’t an account of what has already happened to produce the utopia we live in now, nor is it a prophecy of what will happen in a mythical far-off age to come. The song we sing animates the work we do here and now.

In economics, we have an idea of what discourages people from contributing to solving public problems. There’s this notion that people would be happier, and better off if society solved big problems like poverty, injustice, crime, disease, hunger, but the problems are so epic in scale, it discourages people from jumping into them. Economists call this the “drop in the bucket” problem – the problems are like giant buckets, and anything any of us can do is just a tiny drop, and doesn’t make the bucket noticeably fuller.

And that’s where Mary’s song meets us. God’s kingdom is arriving, and we’re participating in it. Every moment we live in the presence of the arriving Kingdom of God, we help make that kingdom more present. 1.02 billion people are hungry in the world. But 270 of them got meals last Tuesday because of volunteers at the soup kitchen from this church.

Just a drop in the bucket of hunger? Of course. But the leap of faith is that while alone, this isolated act doesn’t do much for the problem of world hunger, as a part of something bigger, it can.

As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, You have to do your work as if everything depends on you, then leave the rest to God. We can persist in doing God’s work not because any of us accomplish great things, but because God, moving through all of creation, can and does.

Our song isn’t a song that good has already triumphed and evil is no more – just look around. But neither is our song a passive longing for some far-off paradise that will someday fall from the sky.

We sing the mighty power of God that animates us and heartens us and gives us grace and strength to serve, even in the face of dishearteningly huge challenges.

Our song calls us to mission, and reminds us that while each of us alone can do very little, the hand of God working through all of us together can do all things.

Mary and Elizabeth remind us that our small acts of saying “Yes” to God’s call to us provide the opportunity for abundant grace to enter the world. Each of our voices alone are tiny, but we are called to join in the heavenly choir with all the angels and saints.

For love is indeed lord of heaven and earth. How can I keep from singing?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who is like God?

Who is like God?

This is the feast of Saint Michael and all angels. The name Michael comes from this Hebrew question: who is like God?

And the first answer to this question is “No one.” No one is like God: God stands alone. There is no other who is creator of the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it. There is no other who created, redeemed, and sustains humankind.

No one is like God. God alone is our rock and our salvation. But our mind wanders from this first answer, and the image of St. Michael, the archangel that fights the powers of evil, brings to mind another answer to this question: The angels are like God.

Indeed, the image of angels draws our mind to contemplate God. In his dream, Jacob saw the angels going up and down the ladder, the stairway to heaven, and knew he was in the presence of the divine. When Jesus conveyed to Nathanael that he would see extraordinary things, he said “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus invoked the image of the angels ascending and descending to tell Nathanael that he would see things he had never seen before. The image of the angels in this story tells us that something beyond ordinary human experience is going on here.

The angels are otherworldly, preternatural. The scriptural images of them fall into two categories: first, praising God, showing us just how highly exalted God is, that an entire cohort beyond our ordinary experience exists just to praise God.

To the extent that the angels are “like God” — powerful, otherworldly, transcendent — they draw attention to the greatness of God in that however much the angels are like God in comparison to us, God is greater still. The angels help us to contemplate the greatness of God.

The lesson from Revelation alongside today’s collect evokes a second function of angels in scripture: to serve as proxy defenders of human kind. In the Revelation lesson, Michael defends the world from the forces of evil. We pray: Mercifully grant that as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth.

This collect predates the Book of Common Prayer, although Archbishop Cranmer added the phrase “by thy appointment” to make it clear that the angels help and defend us because God tells them to; in other words, they may be like God, but they are only our help and protection because God, our ultimate help and protection, so decrees.

So the angels are mighty beings that exist to worship God, and to help, protect, and serve human kind. They worship God, and serve human kind. Worship God, and serve human kind. We’ve heard that somewhere before.

Hear what our Lord Jesus saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

But these aren’t commandments for the angels. The Law and the Prophets give the task of human kind. For the mission of the angels, to worship God completely, and to love and serve humanity, is none other than the end our own existence.

The angels remind us just how high above us they are, and how high above them God is. And yet their task is the same as ours, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. We speak of the angels to bridge the gap between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God.

So we have a third answer.

Who is like God?

When through God’s grace we live out God’s high calling for us, despite our failings and fallings from our creation in God’s image, we are like God.

May the witness of the angels and the grace of God help us to live accordingly.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Operators are standing by

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I hate being rushed into decisions. If I'm making a purchase, I like to shop around, weigh my options, look at different products and prices, and then ponder whether I really need to make the purchase at all. I don't like to hurry to a hasty decision. And that's for something minor, like buying a new six-pack of dress socks. (I ended up getting the Target store brand ones). So Matthew's abrupt life-changing decision in today's Gospel is pretty shocking to me.

One verse. Jesus saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth. Jesus called Matthew. Matthew came. Just like that.

And let's be clear, Matthew at the tax booth wasn't some bureaucrat leaving a desk job. Matthew's job was more like being the front man in a protection racket. Matthew wasn't paid according to a civil service pay schedule; he got a percentage of whatever he could extort from his own people on behalf of the hated occupying Roman army. Walking away from the tax booth meant leaving not just his job, but also his political allegiances and likely his safety. It's not an easy job to quit. So how did Matthew do it so decisively? Is there more to this story? Perhaps our other scripture for the day can help us unpack this.

Paul's second letter to Timothy reminded him to cling to the scripture he had known from childhood that would instruct him in salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Now to be clear, the scriptures Timothy could have known as a child weren't the Gospels, or Paul's letters, which would have yet to be written, but the Hebrew scriptures. Perhaps THIS is Matthew's story. Could the scriptures of his childhood have set the stage for his sudden conversion? If anyone was in need of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, it would seem to be Matthew, who got rich by helping the Romans steal from the Jews. Yet all Jesus said to him was "Follow me." What sort of seeds had been planted in him, ripening from the days of his youth, that he might be so ready to be harvested when Jesus came past his tax booth?

To answer this question, we turn to the other lesson we shared today, a lesson Matthew would have known from his youth:

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes,* and I shall keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law;* I shall keep it with all my heart.
Make me go in the path of your commandments,* for that is my desire.
Incline my heart to your decrees* and not to unjust gain.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless;* give me life in your ways.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,* which you make to those who fear you.
Turn away the reproach which I dread,* because your judgments are good.
Behold, I long for your commandments;* in your righteousness preserve my life.

When we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures, when we practice little steps of following Jesus in unremarkable but real ways in our lives, the seeds are growing in us. And when the acceptable time arrives when God speaks to us, on the day of salvation when God calls us to take a leap to faith and risk everything for the sake of the Kingdom of God, these seeds may come ripe in us as they did in Matthew. We, like Matthew, can cling to what we once learned and firmly believed so when Jesus says, "Follow me," all that remains is to follow immediately. No need to keep those operators standing by. Amen.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Article for the Messenger

My role in the Recycling Ministry is the simplest thing in the world. In Kit Cone’s daily Recycling Ministry newsletter, he puts out a call: someone to help with a pickup from a donor in, say, Boonton on Tuesday at 9:30 am. I check my schedule. If I can, I say, "Here I am." The truck shows up at my door. I get on. Kit drives somewhere. We move things. In contrast with my overly cerebral life as a college professor, it’s a welcome change of pace.

In the monthly Messenger column about the Recycling Ministry, you've probably become accustomed to reading stories about deliveries the Recycling Ministry has made. Lives changed. Workers on the truck profoundly moved by the poverty and gratitude they encountered. "Clients" who say the RM workers who intervened in their lives with the critically needed furniture or more must be angels. We often hear about deliveries because they are so often most obviously, as Kit Cone aptly titles them, "Moving Experiences."

The bulk of my RM experiences, and all of my recent ones, have been pickups. They’re important, of course. We can’t deliver what we don’t have. Without beds and couches and chairs and cribs and tables coming in, they can’t go out to those who so desperately need them.

Despite this critical role, it’s undeniable that there’s just far less glamour in pickups. No one says, "Now I can sleep at night because the sofa I had in my storage unit has been passed along to your warehouse" (not unless they take Luke 12:20 particularly seriously). No one says, "I never thought anyone cared enough about my family to take away our old bookshelf." No one breathes a sigh of relief that their children will now be safer at night because the crib their children have grown out of isn't in the attic anymore. Donors are genuinely glad to be able to share, and perhaps even grateful for the freed-up storage space, but, of course, it’s just not the transfiguring mountaintop experience that deliveries are.

Delivering beds to a family that has been sleeping on the floor can be transformative for both the receiving family and the workers who experience how deeply they are touched. Picking up a used mattress is unlikely to be a life-changing experience for either donor or mattress-hauler. Its quotidian nature, though, is part of its beauty.

I love working on pickups, and even more I love the less-glamorous-yet task of unloading the truck into a warehouse, or even moving things from one storage space to another. There’s something almost meditative and prayerful about the sheer mundanity of it. Much like reciting the Psalms during the Daily Office, the lack of excitement or too much thought to the process allows its sheer repetition to sink in and shape the soul. Can loading a truck be prayer?

What better way to train to be a disciple than to repeat the unremarkable motions of service until they become second nature? What better way to contemplate the presence of Christ than to toil for those of whom Jesus said whatsoever you do to the least of these you do to me? My experience of Christ’s presence when I’m kneeling at the altar rail and Christ’s presence when I’m lugging a mattress are profoundly interconnected.

The Anglican poet John Keble, whose feast we would celebrate March 29 if the date were ever available for a Lesser Feast, wrote words that seem apt for reflecting on the gift of mundane service:

If, on our daily course, our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.

The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.

Only, O Lord, in Thy dear love,
Fit us for perfect rest above,
And help us, this and every day,
To live more nearly as we pray.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Friday, April 10, 2009

It’s a long way from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him.”

Last Sunday, we celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We waved palm branches, and acted out the part of the crowd cheering Jesus on as he entered town. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

But today, again acting out the part of the crowd, we shouted, “Crucify him!”

What changed? Jesus got caught. Messiahs aren’t supposed to get arrested.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds’ expectation was clear. This was not just a healer, a miracle worker coming into town for Passover. When they shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” they had something very concrete in mind.

Passover is the feast when the descendants of Jacob celebrate their liberation from slavery at the hands of a foreign king, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Passover is the feast when the children of Israel celebrate the end of their status as a subject people, and the beginning of the journey to self-rule in their own land.

Jesus’ miracles showed that he was favored by God. So when this great leader favored by God came to Jerusalem for the great feast of liberation, people thought it was time: God was about to drive the Romans out, and put a descendant of David on the throne again.

After centuries of first exile and then oppression, the Messiah was at hand to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. This Jesus was the one. The crowds gathered in Jerusalem that Passover just knew it, so they hailed him as the coming king when he entered town.

So how then today could the crowd call for the hated Roman governor to publicly torture to death the one whom they had expected to be their military deliverer?

In the eyes of the crowd, Jesus had committed the most unthinkable of sins for a Messiah: The worst a military deliverer can do is to lead a failed uprising. Drive the Romans out and you’re almost everyone’s hero. Unsuccessfully attempt to drive the Romans out and no one wants to have anything to do with you. “Crucify him” is a message to the Roman governor: “We were just kidding when we said this guy was the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Governor Pilate, sir, we know you represent the real king. We’ve got nothing to do with this ‘coming kingdom’ bit. Don’t crucify us too.”

John’s gospel, which we heard today, paints a favorable picture of Pilate, but the historical record shows that Pilate had a well-established record for cruelty, even compared to other Roman governors. The crowds had ample reason to be afraid of him. Could his repeated offers to release Jesus have been a perverse loyalty test? A Messiah who tried and failed to overthrow Pilate was a dangerous thing indeed for the people of Jerusalem.

In the eyes of the crowd, a would-be Messiah who could be arrested was worse than no Messiah at all. A failure. The antithesis of all-powerful. How could someone represent the power of the Lord Almighty who can’t overpower a band sent to arrest him, or the the Roman guards who hold him captive?

If Pilate was offering to release their would-be Messiah to them, the message was clear: this was no Messiah. Fear won out over hope: No one could free them from the Romans who wasn’t more powerful than the Romans. No one could deliver them from Pilate’s ever-present threat of torture, death, and destruction who couldn’t defeat it personally. If this Messiah can’t stick it to the Romans, they’d better rid themselves of him, and fast, before the Romans get upset. It’s better for the Romans to torture to death this one person rather than lots of them.

If might must be toppled by greater might, if the way to overcome an army is to shock and awe them into submission with superior military force, then Jesus was an utter failure. Crucify him, Pilate, and forgive us for even thinking about backing the wrong horse here.

Where’s the good news here? A man travels around for three years proclaiming that a new kingdom is at hand, and performing signs that indicate he’s really someone out of the ordinary. He enters the holy city at the time of year they’re expecting a deliverer. The crowd hails him as the coming king. He gets arrested, the crowd realizes that he’s not unbeatable, and the occupying army tortures and kills him.

Some agent of an all-powerful god. Some “good” news.

And yet we call today Good Friday.

In today’s events, Jesus didn’t merely overthrow the Romans; he made them utterly impotent and irrelevant. Because their stock in trade for running an empire was fear, and Jesus didn’t let fear of their power to torture and kill him change his course of action. Jesus didn’t overthrow the Romans; he overthrew death itself, and in the process, negated the need to fear mere Roman armies.

Today we remember how good triumphs over evil. But there’s an awful lot of evil. Abandonment and cowardice and cruelty and pain and death are all too real, both on that Friday almost two thousand years ago and in our own day.

The crowds wanted a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. If Jesus was taking on more than that: death itself, for instance, we’d still like a more spectacular demonstration. Because Jesus suffered, and died, and yes, he defeated death, and yes, it no longer has dominion over him, as we’ll sing on Sunday, but there’s still a lot of people suffering and dying now. If the crowds thought Jesus was a failure as a Messiah for not making a more spectacular public show of driving out the Romans, we’re not all that different. It sure would be nice for us now to see a more spectacular show of driving out suffering and death. We know that death doesn’t have the final word, but the word it does have is pretty intimidating.

The crowds didn’t see it. His closest followers didn’t see it. Even today, sometimes it’s hard to see. But in the actions of this day, the Messiah completely and utterly overthrew the reign of not only the Romans but anyone who would attempt to enslave God’s people. The crowds didn’t realize, but today their savior ended the need to live in fear of the threat of death. A conqueror could threaten to kill them, but death no longer had the final word.

We might wish Jesus had somehow destroyed death, rather than just neutralizing it. But if Jesus had met power with power, we who don’t have omnipotent power would still need to fear power.

If Jesus had met the Roman army with the hosts of heaven, we who don’t have legions of angels at our command would still need to fear the might of earthly rulers.

If Jesus had met death with immortality, we who are mortal would still need to fear death.

Instead, Jesus stood in the face of all the pain and suffering that evil could throw at him, and let it wash over him. He endured mocking, beating, sinister betrayal by Judas, cowardly betrayal by the crowd, abandonment by his closest followers, flogging, humiliation, lugging heavy beams, drinking sour wine, and even death itself. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off.

He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.

The good news here today is that evil can’t win. If we are baptized into Christ’s death, we share in this passion today. We share in Jesus’ facing up to all the terrible suffering that the mightiest empire in the world could throw at him, and not resisting it precisely because the worst they had to give was incapable of destroying him. The man who said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Bless those who curse you.” didn’t need to add a clause “unless they’re about to kill you; then, smite them with the hosts of heaven.”

The crowds we acted out today represent the victory of fear over hope. The passion of the Christ represents the victory of love over fear, and we are baptized into that victory. Evil has no power over us, because it can do its dreaded worst but not change our trajectory.

The crowds in today’s Gospel seemed to have in mind the old admonition “do unto others before they do unto you.” All this talk of loving enemies is great, but when things are really on the line, sometimes you have to be realistic, right?

But the triumph of the cross is the triumph of idealism over realism: Jesus said no to the temptation to abandon the strength of nonviolence, the power of selflessness, the might of love. The cross today is the ultimate act of practicing what one preaches. This passion and death that we heard in today’s gospel is the very enactment of the Sermon on the Mount.

The world is too much with us. We have much in common with the crowds we acted out today. We often let fear win out over hope, and power over love. Sin and fear are all too present, and we do not always live with the awareness of the present Kingdom of God. Disease, cruelty, loss, and death are realities. And even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, even when he was about to bring him back from the dead moments later.

But our baptism into Christ’s passion and death helps us to share in Christ’s triumph today: sometimes, in moments of hope and glimpses of grace, we can act differently than the crowds in today’s story. We do not need to act out of the fear of suffering or death. To Jesus, death did its worst, and now death is all used up. Even when it’s hardest to see that it’s true, death doesn’t have the final word. All of us go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song. Amen.