Sermon, 1 Christmas yrA, 2013

My friends in Christ, I think it would be a safe assumption to say that each of us has our favorite things in life. A favorite musician, a favorite poem, a favorite book, a comfort food that makes us feel good inside, and yes, even favorite people. When it comes to people, I have a favorite cousin. His name is Steve. Although his family grew up on the south side of Chicago, every summer they’d drive through Wisconsin, make the turn north at Duluth, and spend their vacation with the family back home. Steve and I are contemporaries. We were each others best man and we share the same family memories and experiences. Steve has always been the cousin who saved my ass, time and time again, when we’d done something stupid or gotten into trouble. I can use the word ass in church because it’s in the bible. Steve saved my ass again, thanks to an email he sent earlier this week as I prepared this sermon. This is what he sent me: “One day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the rascally behavior that was going on. So God called one of the angels and sent the angel to earth for a time. When he returned, he told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.” God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another opinion.” So God called another angel and sent him to earth for a time, too. When the angel returned he went to God and said, Yes, it’s true. The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.” God was not pleased. So God decided to email the 5% who were good, because God wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going. Do you know what the email said? No? Okay, just wondering. I didn’t get one either.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are in the midst of the twelve days of Christmas. Through the incarnation –God with skin on– God sent us something much better than an email. God sent us God, as a human being. Our Gospel today, John’s Prologue, is prose and poetry with no equal. Saint Augustine wrote that his friend Simplicius told him he had heard a Platonic philosopher say that this prologue of St. John’s gospel was “worthy to be written in letters of gold.” The synoptic Gospels pale in comparison to the depth of John’s writing. They deal with Christ’s life and his actions and acts among us. John’s Gospel is all about the spiritual and cosmic nature of Christ –the life and soul– of God with skin on. Verse 14 of our Gospel today: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” is full of that incarnation. Indeed, “lived among us” is more properly understood as “pitched his tent among us.” God wanted to know us. God wanted to see and hear and touch and smell and taste what God had made. That’s how much God loves us. The message is one of love. Later on in this great gospel, Jesus says this: Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other.
To that, my friends, let the church say AMEN.



Sermon Notes 2Advent2013A

I remember when I was still working, sitting at our nurses station early one evening. We had a curved mirror on the wall, up high, so could look down the hall when the electronic doors opened and see who was coming into the unit. Except for shift changes, our ICU was open 24/7 and we were used to visitors at all hours. On this night, at about 2130 the doors swung open. I looked up at the mirror and saw a little girl of about 8 and an elderly lady walk in. I recognized the woman; her husband was a patient of mine and the little girl was one of his grandchildren. The little girl skipped ahead of her grandmother and popped into my patient’s room. He was reading the newspaper. “Grandpa,” she exclaimed, “Make a noise like a frog! Pleeeease!” He looked up from his paper and asked, “Why should I do that, little one?” She said, “Oh Grandpa! Grandma said that when you croaked, we’re going to Disneyland!!!”
My friends in Christ, today we continue our Advent journey. Year A in our liturgical calendar finds most of our readings from Matthew, so a bit about his Gospel. Matthew, along with Mark and Luke are synoptic Gospels; they contain much of the same information, in parallel, but not in the same places chronologically. Matthew follows the life of Jesus, as we know it, and starts with a genealogy of Christ from Abraham to Joseph. Matthew was written between the years 65 and 80; some think it may have been written as early in the AD 50s, and that it was written in Antioch, Syria. Who wrote the Gospel is under scrutiny, but the historian Eusebius , in his fascinating work Church History, quotes Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, who claims that Mathew did write this Gospel. Eusebius’ book is public domain and if anyone is a church nerd, I highly recommend it. Matthew was a tax collector and early church tradition claims that after Matthew completed his Gospel, he moved east to evangelize India.
Our Gospel readings through the four weeks of Advent are like peeling the layers of an onion…we meet characters and get closer and closer each passing week to this baby God with skin on. That peeling of layers actually begins in the Old Testament, with the major and minor prophets. They write, sometimes in metaphor and sometimes precisely to the word, pointing to that place in space and time and geography where God comes down to show us what God’s love is like.
Today we meet that last prophet: Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. When I look at the Gospel stories I like to close my eyes and imagine. I want to smell the smells of that time…I want to hear what they hear, to see and taste and touch and smell that story. Sometimes I go to images of the story or characters in it to help me understand. One of the images I came across is in your prayers of the people. It’s a modern drawing of John the Baptist, perhaps scetched at John’s local Red Locust restaurant. He’s got that locust on his plate, ready to peel and dip in his cup of warm wild honey. The image, obviously, is an attempt at humor. Some people think it’s funny, and some people don’t.

I did find some amazing artwork about John the Baptist. The image the struck me the most, and is still with me, is a life-sized wood carving of the Baptist done by the Italian artist Donatello in the 1300s. John is filthy. He is disheveled, unkempt, and grotesque. He is bare-foot, has that heavy camel shirt on, appears almost cross-eyed. He holds a scroll with the Latin words ECCE HOMO -behold the man- written on it. John looks insane. I wonder what would happen if the front doors of Trinity were to burst open and we would be confronted with John in person…coming down the aisle with a walking stick, surrounded by locusts, smelling of dirt, sweat, and honey, shouting to us: “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! REPENT! MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD! HIS AX IS SHARP AND YOU MAY BURN!!!”

Please know and understand, my dear friends in Christ: John was a prophet. Despite his appearance and demeanor he came announcing the birth of someone that he felt he wasn’t worthy to even be around…someone bringing a new baptismal fire…from the Holy Spirit.
John was also an evangelist. Russ, Nila, Linda, Larry, this ornery deacon and each and every one of you are evangelists, too. We don’t come with an ax. We don’t come with screaming. We don’t come with anger. We don’t come making people fear God. As we prepare for Advent, ask yourselves: “What kind of evangelist am I?” Am I an angry, hurt evangelist? How do I treat those among me? What am I doing to show others the love of the lil baby coming so so soon?
This coming week, we celebrate the feast day of Thomas Merton. He was a famous, well-loved RC Priest and monk and author. Please listen to his quiet reflection written for this Second Sunday of Advent: “This is the day that you shall hear and hate the voice of His beloved servant. This is the day your scrutiny shall fear a terrible and peaceful angel, dressed in skins, knowing it is your greedy eyes, not his, that die of hunger. For God has known and loved him, from his mother’s womb, remembering his name, filling his life with grace, teaching him prophecy and wisdom, to burn before the Face of Christ, name Him and vanish, like a proclamation.”
My dear friends in Christ, Advent is a hushed time, a quiet time, a waiting time. So soon, too soon, not soon enough, we will worship together, hushed in this quiet, candle-lit church. We started our journey, our preparation, a week ago. We wait, we pray, we hope. In this time, may our hearts and minds and voices united, here at Trinity Parish, be prepared to receive Christ the baby. May we be an example of God’s love and joy to those who do not know Christ. Remember, as evangelists, we may be the only Christian some people may see. As Paul says so elegantly writes in our epistle today: “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
To that, my friends, let the church say AMEN.

Sermon Notes 26PentC13

My friends in Christ, an online, totally unscientific poll this past week in the Independence Examiner, offered this statement: “Scientists said this week that it appears likely that small but destructive meteors like the one that hit in Russia this year could hit Earth far more frequently than previously believed.” Then came the question for the poll: “What do you think?” The poll offered four responses: A) We should be doing more to develop the ability to destroy or deflect them in space. B) If it’s a big enough meteor, we’re all toast anyway. (My choice) C) Let’s focus on problems here on earth. or D) Cross your fingers and hope it hits the other side of the planet. As of this writing A has 38%, B and C are tied at 28%, and D had 6%.

 Two things disturb me about this survey: That 6% of the respondents were so selfish and Western-world thinking, and scientifically ignorant to choose D, and more disturbing, that so many people thought that the first choice, ‘We should be doing more to develop the ability to destroy them or deflect them in space,” came in first place.

Keep that in mind, my brothers and sisters, as we look at today’s Gospel lesson. At a casual reading, I’m sure that many people look at this lesson and think “end times or “rapture.”

Some theology: The word rapture isn’t even in the Bible. One verse from Matthew – one verse – has been used since American Puritan times to develop a theory of the rapture. The rapture is a totally American theology, founded by the likes of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, who is remembered most for his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” The theology of the rapture is divided into probably four different types (millenial, dispensationalist, post-millenialist, and so on…) all hard, all full of fear and damnation. The word rapture is synonymous with the word rape and, please remember, my friends, that the American Puritans gave us the Salem witch trials and were part of a wave of European settlement in this country that began a cultural genocide of our Indigenous People that continues to this day.

Some theology: The rapture is NOT part of early Christian theology, or modern Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox theology. We are an amillennial people in our view of these so-called end times. Amillennialism teaches that there will not be a future millennium in which Christ will reign on earth prior to the Second Coming but rather, we believe: that Jesus is presently reigning from heaven seated at the right hand of God the Father, that Jesus also is and will remain with the church until the end of the world as he promised at the Ascension, that at Pentecost the millennium began as is shown by perusing the prophecies of Joel about the coming of the kingdom in Acts of the Apostles to explain what was happening, and that, therefore the Church – its spread of the good news – is Christ’s Kingdom and will be forever.

Quite simply, I like to view these two theologies – rapture vs what we believe – as fear based or Good News based. An example: When I was working in the ICU I had a friend named Doug. Doug was Jewish. One night I was working with Debbie and Cheryl. Debbie was a fundamentalist rapture person; harsh and judgmental. Cheryl was raised in a totally secular home and was one of the kindest, thoughtful people I’d ever worked with. Cheryl was also a lesbian. Debbie felt it was her “christian duty” to talk with Cheryl about what she called “Cheryl’s chosen lifestyle”, but that’s a whole different sermon.

One night we were chatting. This ornery deacon was telling one of his famous “I remember one night when Doug and I were working” stories and Debbie interrupted me to ask how Doug was doing, as he had moved away. I filled her in, as Cheryl sat by listening. Debbie said “Doug is such a nice man…I wish he were saved,” and left to tend to a patient. I shook my head and began telling Cheryl the rest of the story when she interrupted me. “Jon,” she asked, “You’re some sort of minister in your church aren’t you?” I nodded and she continued. “I don’t understand this God stuff, but I’ve seen how you and Debbie disagree on so many things and I have a question: What are we saved from?” For one of the few times in my life I was speechless. I thought for a moment and said, “Cheryl, Debbie’s beliefs are fear based, that Jesus died for us to save us from something awful. I believe that Jesus died for us…and He also rose for us. I believe that we our saved from ourselves and I express that in the joys and demands of Gospel living.”

In that sense, my friends, look at the poll again. Building a shield or a weapon to protect us is fear based…much like those who believe in their rapture. Remember, instead, the gospel today. This Gospel has also been twisted by countless evangelists and rapturists to describe what life will be like “when Jesus comes back.” In this lesson, I feel the emphasis is not so much on what will happen when Jesus returns, as it is on what we (the church) are supposed to be doing until he does come back.

Jesus is not preaching doom and gloom. Jesus is speaking to his people in his time, and he also speaks through time to us. After all, things really haven’t changed much. We still have wars, we still have tough times full of anxiety and instability, we still have our human condition and we are all terribly broken. Our Gospel lesson today is a hopeful one – a call to faithful living, to endurance, to hanging in through tough times, to have faith in the God who has faith in us a place where God rules in every heart, where Christ’s love motivates all actions, where we remember it’s about God and not about us.

There are two lines in this Gospel that we must hear and understand and inwardly digest AND live into: “Before all this occurs…,” Jesus says, “you will be given an opportunity to testify,” and “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” The profession of our faith – daily – how we live, how we act, how we treat others, is what matters most to Christ; by our actions and voices we are Christ to those who need his love most.

To that, dear souls, let the church say AMEN!

More pain; why write about this?

My dear wife is a case manager for a social service agency that provides housing and assistance for those who need it. I am a retired critical care RN with 27 years of bedside care and I have been an Episcopal deacon for eleven years. Basically we are both professional doters. That is all fine and good.
My health is not good.
I’m a man…who hates being fussed over and does not like to complain.

That, dear reader, is the setup for what the people in the storm business call a perfect storm.

I even dislike writing about this. Yet I must. Putting this on paper forces me to keep my reality in focus for myself and gives others a concept of what living with chronic illness and pain is like, dontchaknow? I also write this with the fervent prayer that no one have to live like this. I’m not whining…and please understand that this is not my pity pottie. I have been like this for a long time and just maybe God wants me to put my words to paper so others may find some strength or some hope for themselves. Maybe someone will read this and think, “Oh wow,  I am not alone in my suffering! ”

Now, back to the perfect storm!

This is my reality: major joint and back pain that makes me feel like they are exploding…muscle tiredness…pain in my muscles that is NOT cramps–it’s more like a searing hot pain…bad brain fog… dizziness…unsteadiness…a feeling like I may fall…dry burning eyes…sword-like pleuresy from my lung surgery…that whoosh-whooshing I hear in my left ear from a dissecting carotid… and yet a hope that all will be well.  Many times my mantra is from the Rolling Stones: “…you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need…” or it’s those amazing words from His Bobness: “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.”

The perfect storm is my wanting to suck it up and work with and through the pain and tell everyone that I’m doing OK versus my wife’s desire to care for me and make sure that I get good care. She knows that I don’t care for doctors and doctor office visits…I wish she didn’t know that… but dammit she keeps me honest and stands for me when I want to gloss everything over and get the hell out of the damned doctors office so I can quit wasting their time. Dang I hate being a bother.

Lesson for me? Be of good cheer and let God be God. Be honest with the Tish. Let the damned doctors do their work… and continue to be the ears and eyes and hands to those to whom I minister… show them God’s love…never forget to laugh… enjoy the odd juxtapositions and cognitive dissonances that come my way…and never piss off the altar guild.

oh for pain

One of my favorite words is salvific.  It means, simply, leading to salvation and comes from the late 16th century, from Latin salvificus ‘saving’, from salvus ‘safe’.  It means much and packs a joyful punch, and is very baseball-ish/-ic/-oid to me; the theological equivalent for “safe at home.”  

Still, if I could change my name to Salvatore Vific, so i could be great uncle Sal Vific, I would.

Living with chronic pain which could be from the fibro AND the sarc can, some days, almost be intolerable.  I am taking gabapentin for this.  It seems to work but today has been a long day, as Wednesdays are wont to be, and tomorrow we have a burial office sans Eucharist.  Luckily my FNP has a list of five non-narcotic pain relievers for me to try out.  Nevertheless, I do hurt, and trying to explain it would be futile.  Every day is different; throw in pleurisy from the sarc and bizarre headaches and every day is an unpredictable joy.  (Yah, weird, but it’s how I relate to the pain.)  Pain, like recovery, is very Zen and sitting has helped me a lot.  The power of the mind…wow.

Them ‘Piskies

Why am I an Episcopalian?

—>It’s like Catholic, sans the pope and inquisitional ickiness.

—>It’s like Protestant, sans Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.

—>We don’t check our brains at the door when go to church.

—>Women clergy.  Gay clergy.  Man and woman and gay and straight God made them, and man and woman and gay and straight we ordain them.

—>Amazing, challenging sermons.  (most of the time)

—>Awesome and majorly cool parishioners with whom to minister.

—>Most importantly: We take the bible seriously because we don’t take it literally.

Sermon 23Pentecost2013C

Sermon notes 23PentC

 My friends in Christ, in the Old Testament there are 17 prophets. Joel, the author of our first lesson today, ranks with the minor prophets, of which there are five. The remaining 12 are referred to as major prophets. These two rankings have nothing to do with the “greatness” of their prophesying; in fact all it refers to is the length of the book that the prophet had written! The lesson for us is that if you want to be a major prophet, be long-winded and use too many words when you write. We’d have the major prophet Dickens, the prophet Poe, and the prophet HP Lovecraft, my favorite writer. Our minor prophets would be folks like the prophet Emily Dickinson or the prophet Dr. Suess.

In this short book called Joel there are two discourses. The first, that we heard today, refers to the amazing gifts that come with repentance: God has given the early and abundant rain. God has given threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil. The people will praise the name of the Lord and God’s people shall never again be put to shame. God says to Joel, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

In our epistle today, Timothy writes of God’s faithfulness to him, “…the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this goodness of God — What do we have to do to experience such overwhelming goodness and love? God’s heavenly kingdom — How do we get there?

As it always must, it comes down to the Gospel. The Good News of Christ, who so often speaks of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is no future place. The kingdom of God is here and now and we can do our part to make God’s kingdom bloom with Christ’s love, by simply following Christ and his teachings.

Two weeks ago we heard about the ten lepers. Nameless, faceless lepers. So many times in the Gospels, a nameless, faceless person enters stage left, has an intimate, life-changing encounter with Christ, and exits stage right, never to be heard from again. In my mind I like to think that such nameless, faceless people represent us and that our actions make, or don’t make, God’s kingdom as a place for all.

Our gospel today is a parable that involves two nameless, faceless people — a pharisee and a tax collector. They’re praying to God, in God’s house. The pharisee is one of those haughty, proud, “It’s all about me, dontchaknow?” people. The pharisee boasts about how he prays, how he gives and lives and how thankful he is that he’s better than all the others. I choose to call that pharisaical chaos.

On the other hand, the tax collector is quiet and respectful in God’s house. He beats his breast in humility, head bowed low. I can feel the peace that he exudes and in my mind I can hear him whispering his prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Christ offers one comment. He mentions the tax collector, saying, “…this man went to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” When this ornery deacon reads those words and thinks about them in my mind and heart, I’m reminded of one of the sayings I’ve learned in AA: “EGO is an acronym for Edging God Out.”

My friends in Christ, today we kick-off our annual stewardship campaign. I’d like to share with you another parable. This parable takes place in the here and now. It’s a parable about the possibilities of the kingdom of God: Two people enter God’s house. They’re both broken, hurting people. One of them sees God’s house as inward, closed…a family that worships together, stays together, sees God’s face only in each other, and holds the purse tight. The other sees God’s house as a place with an open door, a place where all come and all are welcome and accepted as family member. A place with hands and hearts and minds extended to the poor, the lonely, the young. A place that sees God’s face in everyone, even the stranger. A place where they know that their stewardship will be used, not frozen.

Some of you may know that I am not a well man. I have a nasty autoimmune disease that has attacked my lungs and skin and may be elsewhere. I have a dissection in my left carotid artery, my kidneys are ever so slowly failing and I live with chronic pain. In the long run, none of that matters. I have a wife who loves me. There’s an old Yiddish saying that had Dawn in mind: “If your wife laughs at your joke you either have a good wife or a good joke.” I have a son in Minneapolis and a daughter in South Africa who tolerate me. I am a minister of God. Most importantly, that ministry is centered here and from, Trinity. I love each of you as only a deacon can and it is my honor and deepest joy to remind everyone of how much God loves them, and that there is nothing any of us can ever do to make God love us any less. It is my deep prayer that, as we being our 2013 stewardship campaign, each of us not look upon our gifts with contentment and hands that hold our gifts close. I pray that God may open our eyes to the needs and upkeep of God’s house and to the Gospel Imperative that the mission field, the future Trinity, is beyond our doors.

My brothers and sisters, we live in an era that pits us against them, white vs black or red or yellow, Christian vs Muslim, fundamentalist vs critical thinkers, rich vs poor, gay vs straight. Our pharisaical chaos refuse to see what God sees: every single one of us! We all stand before God in God’s house with our prayers and gifts. Our own self-righteousness, especially when coupled with contempt for others, leaves no room for us to give thanks or for God to do God’s work.

With that, aware of that, and emboldened by that, let the church say AMEN!