Simplicity

the 18th day of Pentecost
Proper 23
13 October 2019

Today’s readings are:
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Click here to access these readings.
 
       I joked about this at our pet blessing last Sunday, but there really isn’t anything in my priest books that tells me how to bless animals. Actually, there’s not all that much in all my books that tells me how to bless anything, really. We’re supposed to make the sign of the cross, put our hand up or something, and often it’s best, when blessing a person, to put your hand on their shoulder or even hold their hand, but all this is really just best practices, not “how you do it.” And that’s because blessing someone is actually really just a simple matter: you pray with them. You turn with a person, or a group, or a little animal, towards God. We say to God, “Please, love this person or group, or animal with the fullness of your being.” And we believe God says, “Of course.”

        You can say the same thing about the liturgy, too. It’s very simple. I know, there’s a whole lot of stuff with our liturgy, and, like I said the other week, all this stuff is important. But even with all the bowing and chasubles and chalices, the whole thing is really very simple. We come together, we pray, we eat, then we head out. Everything else helps, and it helps immensely (again, it’s best practices), but the heart of the matter is a prayer to God. And, really, that’s enough as it is.

        Now, there’s a lot of things we can do to dress things up. The more I wave my hands at your when I’m blessing you, or the more motions I make while celebrating the Eucharist, the more it seems like I’m up to something. And something really is going on: when a priest blesses us, or when any Christian blesses someone, God is really present. God is really there in a special way. But it’s not because we wave our hands or make really heart-felt prayers. And in the bread and wine of Communion: God’s really there, really present, and that bit of wafer and sip of wine really do lift us closer to Heaven; but they do this not because I’ve got a chasuble on or because you’re kneeling. God’s there, God’s here, because God wants to be here with us. God loves us and hopes for us.

        At this point, you may say: Now, Father Tim. The other week you preached on how awesome stuff is in the liturgy and in our Christian lives. And now you’re talking about how awesome things are because they’re simple. So which is it?” Well, isn’t it both? There’s this beautiful simplicity in Communion, of coming to the rail as just us, no strings attached, even though we sin each and every day and just keep on sinning, even still we kneel or stand and say, simply, “Jesus, please come” and he does.

And that moment, that most glorious and humbling moment, is set within the liturgy that lifts that moment up, that focuses that moment, that helps us understand that it is Jesus coming to us and not something else. The liturgy helps us understand the coming of Jesus in Communion, something that is beyond words and beyond all human expectation and hope; and that moment when we meet Jesus, in turn, helps us understand all the prayers, the Scripture and the Creeds, our confession and that we truly are forgiven our sins when we confess them. The simple and the complicated, they work together, each and all together, and all so that we can take another step, however small, towards God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

Now, all of our readings this morning were on faith. And all of them remind us that, although it seems like a pretty complicated thing, faith is actually pretty simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple. I think of caring for a baby: you know, there’s not much to it. You feed them, you change their diaper, and you put them down to sleep. Pretty simple. But in that simplicity there is a depth that is often too deep for words. Because there is a love that you give to a baby, each time you feed them, lay them down to sleep, or even change their diapers. And that love means the world to them, and it is life for them.

Or think of caring for our friends or our family. What they need from us, most often, is just someone to be there with them. Yeah, sure, sometimes our families or friends get into some wacky problems that are complication upon complication upon complication, but what they need, most often, is simple, honest love: a friend to sit by them in the turmoil, a presence of love in all the confusion and anxiety, a word or even just a patient silence that does not demand, that does not press, that does not muck up the problem even more than it already is mucked up. They need just love: simple, honest love. Then, sure you can get down to fixing the problem or working out solutions or whatever. But all of that is founded on that simple love that we give by just being next to them and, well, loving them.

Faith can often be a tough thing. In the face of great adversity, in the face of darkness and sorrow and grief, and in the face of real and true loss, it can be hard to hold onto faith. Our faith can feel like sand slipping through our fingers, and doubt can loom large and ugly on the horizon of our grief. And when we hear “God is with you”, it can be easy to turn around and say, “yeah, sure, where?” But when we sit down and quiet our hearts, when we put to rest our worry and anxiety, when we open our eyes we see that there is a life in this world, a life that isn’t just a thing or a force or an energy but a living presence. In times of fear, it is a tenacious courage that walks beside us; in anxiety, it is a calm presence sitting very still and inviting us to peace; in hatred, it is a word in our ear that all is loved, even that, or especially that, which is lost, forgotten, and alone.

There is no simple way to define faith. There is no simple way to grow in faith. Nor should there be. A robust faith is often found at the end of a lot of heartache, a lot of grief, and a lot of darkness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, we discover the reality of faith, the reality that God is with us, Emmanuel, that Jesus Christ loves us and died for us and rose for us, so that we could know what true life was really like, that this faith is what holds us and gets us through the heartache and grief and darkness. And each step forward brings us closer to Him: the one who Created us, the one who Redeemed us, the one who Sanctifies us, and the one who Loves us with the fullness of Being itself. And even now this Voice is calling you to turn to that Life.

God, Creation, and the Animals

Blessing of the Animals
Genesis 1:24-31
Psalm 148:7-14
Matthew 11:25-30

        I have a lot of books about ministry, and none of them tell me how to bless a animal.  None of them.  I’ve got the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve got the Lutheran book of worship, I’ve got commentaries on the Book of Common Prayer, and (I kid you not) commentaries on the commentaries of the Book of Common Prayer.  There are notes about how to bless water, about how to bless a baptismal font, how to bless people who are sick or dying, and all sorts of other things.  But none of it tells me how to bless an animal, much less a picture of one.  Maybe Pastor Gary’s got something up his sleeve, but I got nothing.

        But you know what, that’s fine.  I mean, I like all the ceremony and liturgy and words and all, but when it comes to pets and to Creation, I think simplest is often best.  Because that’s how Creation is in our lives, anyway.  There’s a sort of immediacy to the way animals and nature, isn’t it?  There’s a closeness, an intimacy, of the way a dog greets us when we come home, or how a cat sits on our lap (or our book) in the evening.  There’s an immediacy of the weather, of the gusting of the wind, of the smell of the ocean, of the coolness beneath a tree’s shadow on a summer day.  The blessings of God through nature come to us in this close, intimate way, and this closeness speaks volumes without ever uttering a word.

        I think St. Francis, whose feast day we remembered on Friday, knew this.  There’s a story about how, one day, in the middle of his home city, he stripped off all his clothes and handed them back to his father, saying that his Father in heaven had provided him with everything he really needed.  And while I really enjoy clothes and frown a bit on public nudity, I think I know what St. Francis meant.  There’s something healing about nature.  There’s something healing about snuggling with a dog, or the companionship of a horse, or the sunshine, or the rain.  And with all this stuff we fill our lives with, all this stuff we have to make our lives easier or more convenient or a bit more comfy, we forget all that.  We forget that God is there providing for us each and every day, each and every moment.  St. Francis who reminds us of this, which is one of the reasons we remember him.  And it’s our pets, other animals, and nature herself that remind us of this, too. 

        Now don’t get me wrong.  Nature isn’t always warm and cuddly.  I just moved from Tennessee where it was like a billion degrees from January 1st to Christmas (not really).  Dogs don’t just cuddle; they also bite.  The same wind that can gently ruffle the soul can also blow houses down.  And that’s why, as we enjoy and love Creation, we have to remember and pray for those who are in the path of it: those who are affected by everything from earthquakes to heat waves.  Sailors know this: the ocean isn’t just a nice thing you get to look at when you’re in the mood for some good brooding: it’s something that can give life, and something that can take it away.

        And that’s why we come to bless it.  For when we bless something, one of the things we do is look at it square in the face for what it is, not what we want it or demand it to be. For Creation isn’t ours. God gave it to us like a library book, and if we bring that library book back to the library with pages ripped out and coffee spilled on it, we’re gonna be in trouble. God gave us stewardship of Creation like a parent gives their teenager the keys to the car, and woe to you if the next time I see this car it’s in a ditch. Whether we are in efforts to conserve Creation, using its resources for the betterment of society, or just sitting down next to our dog after a long day’s work: we are to see that Creation is God’s, just like our bodies, our souls, and all of our love, hope, and joy that we have ever known.

        So, after some prayers and some singing, Gary and I are going to bless these animals. And tomorrow, I hope you’ll bless them, and continue to bless them, each and every day of your life.

What brought you to Jesus?

the 16th Day after Pentecost
Proper 21
September 29th, 2019

Today’s readings are:
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Click here to access these readings. 

    Now, I want to ask you all a question that, usually, makes Episcopalians squirm. I’ve seen it made Roman Catholics squirm a bit, too, but this sort of question, that I’m about to ask, usually makes us Episcopalians in particular really, really uncomfortable. I remember, a few times, down south at seminary, our professors would ask this question every now and again, and there were a few of my fellow seminarians who just – it looked like you had just put a spider down the back of their shirts. They kinda twitched, or itched, or looked down at their desks and fiddle with their papers. This question made them super uncomfortable. So enough preamble; here’s the question: what brought you to Jesus Christ?     

       For many Episcopalians, this is a deeply personal question. And while I’m teasing you all and Episcopalians in general, I think it really is a deeply personal question: what brought you to Jesus Christ? Not: what persuaded you that the claims of the Bible and of the Church were true, as if this were an essay test back in school. Not: defend the theology of the church in three to five sentences. No; what brought you into a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Word by which God the Father created the whole Universe, the guy, Jesus; what brought you to him, into his presence, into his love, into his loving embrace? What brought you to Jesus Christ?

       Now, it’s okay if we balk a bit before this question. At least at first. We Episcopalians, along with some other liturgical denominations, put quite a bit of importance on mystery. And not mystery like in Sherlock Holmes books where there’s a detective and a crime and the mystery is solved in the end. I mean True Mystery. The mystery of Life, of Love, of true Goodness that reaches to the foundation of reality and back. Think about the Eucharist. I could explain to you all the very intricate theology of what happens in the Eucharist, but at the end of the day, we all know that, in some way we meet Jesus up there at the altar rail, don’t we? We know it in our heart of hearts. And when we try to explain it, we get all fuddled and confused, because the beauty of the Eucharist, and that closeness with God, is so much more than words. It is a mystery. It is more than us.

       And that’s all very good, but I want to ask you again: what brought you to Jesus Christ? For many people, and especially for many Episcopalians, this question is a mystery like the Eucharist is a mystery. That encounter – that first encounter with Jesus Christ as an adult, not just as a child, which is special enough, but as an adult – that encounter reaches down and touches our very being, the most personal part of ourselves. And for most of us, it wasn’t a single moment. Most of the time, the presence of Jesus Christ enters into our lives over a long time. It’s a slow lifting up, just like how we raise our children, slowly, surely, coming alongside them at times, letting them totter and wobble on their own two legs at others. But there are always moments of grace, those perfect moments or periods of time when, whether in those moments or when we reflect on them, we know that God is with us, that Jesus Christ is or was standing beside us saying his great name: here I am, I am with you.

       And yet I will ask you again: what brought you to Jesus Christ? And I ask you not because I want to make you feel uncomfortable or squirm in your pew. I ask you, and I hope for a response, because talking about a thing does something to the heart. I remember a student in my writing class while I was working at the U of O. She came to my office and asked for help thinking up an idea of what to write about for her essay. She went through the usual big-ticket issues that everyone writes about in these classes: the death penalty, immigration, legalizing marijuana. But I could tell that she really didn’t want to write about any of that (and, really, I didn’t want to read another paper on these topics either, truth be told). So I said, “Listen, what do you want to write about.” And she said, “Harry Potter.” Really, she wanted to write about children’s literacy and why fantasy literature like Harry Potter was so important to teach in schools. She went on for twenty minutes about Harry Potter, swinging between formal rhetoric and just gushing about something she loved. So I told her, “Write that paper.” And she did. And it was probably one of the best papers I ever read as a teacher, because she downright loved what she wrote about.

       You see, we have a life surging inside of us. God is living within us, within our loves, within our joys, within our hopes and dreams and all that we hope to be good and true. But we Christians, we’re not supposed to keep all that inside. We’re not supposed to bottle up God and keep him in a nice, dusty shelf in the back of our heart like an old bottle of wine, waiting for just the right moment to pop the cork and pour some out. We are people of living water, and the cool thing about living water is that there’s no end to it. And the other important thing about living water is that we are living in a world that is desperately, desperately thirsty.

       But just as we are not curators of a library that does not lend out books, we are also not fire hydrants. That student I mentioned didn’t just write a paper out into the void; she wrote for me, her teacher, and for her fellow students and, I believe, children around the country and the world for whom literacy is so important. The Christian life is not lived alone. So, perhaps it’s better to ask, not what brought you to Jesus Christ but who brought you to Jesus Christ? In whose eyes did you see Jesus? In whose actions? In whose love? Maybe it was through discussions, maybe through just actions, but who brought you to Jesus Christ? Who, when you just saw them, who made you believe?

       And now I’ll ask another question: who did you help bring to Jesus Christ? Who, when they think long and hard about their life, when they come sober to the facts of who they are and who has guided them, when they ask: who was it? Who thinks of you? And if you say immediately, in a knee-jerk kinda fashion, oh, no one, then awesome, you’re being humble, and that’s good. But think again. Think more deeply on whose lives you’ve touched and in which room you’ve carried Jesus Christ with you. For you don’t come up to the altar just to get a little wafer and a bit of wine. You don’t pray just so you can talk out your problems. You don’t go and do the ministry of the Church so that society can be more cohesive. We Christians are bearers of God the Spirit, of the presence of Jesus Christ Himself. And when you leave those doors later this morning, you will have God with you, ready to be present, to love, and to guide this wayward world into some semblance of hope. Who brought you to Christ? Who have you brought to Christ? Who will you bring to Christ?

 

Small Things

the 15th Day of Pentecost
Proper 20
September 22nd, 2019

The lessons for today are:
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Click here to access these readings.

            While in seminary, a couple friends and I took once took a retreat at a monastery down in Alabama (good ‘Father-Shippey’ kinda country, where the sweet tea flows like water). This was a Benedictine monastery, and so, because of their vows, they were super hospitable. They put us up in guest quarters (for free, too, because they couldn’t turn anyone anyone away), fed us (again, for free), and invited us to their prayer offices, which went from early in the morning until after dinner at night. Everything was, quite basically, taken care of for us. We were there to relax, breathe, and live apart from the busyness of seminary studies.

            Now, that said, we had a lot to do. I brought, of course, tons of things to read. I had some good friends with me, there were all throughout the forest out back, and there were the beautiful prayer services that pulled me to the heart of my faith. It was at this monastery that I finally realized why things like the Eucharistic prayer need to be sung (so if you don’t like that we do that here, you can blame those good monks down in Alabama!).

            So, yeah, I had a lot to do. But as time went on, I found that I did less and less. That first evening, I cracked open a book, and the following morning, my friend and I talked about seminary and life and literature, but as the days continued, I open my books less often. My friends and I talked less. Soon our walks were silent. Little things, like the sun or moon, or the monks singing or even just walking in procession – these seemed so much more important than anything I could read or that we’d talk about. The world around me seemed so full already; why add to it?

            And if you think this is just old romantic Tim up here, I think these moments are pretty common in life. I remember when my two girls were born: those first few moments holding them, and that first night when it was just so perfect to just look at them – not do anything, not say anything, but just to watch them sleep. That was enough. There’s also the calm of baking, or gardening, or just walking, where the only things on your mind are the next step, then the next, then the next.

            In these moments, you find that – or, at least, I’ve found that – the small things are actually really big. And not “big” in the sense of weighty and full of anxiety, but tat they’re full, important, exceptional, Spirit-filled. Small things like the weight of a little infant in your arms, or the colors of the sunrise, or the graceful way a monk bows – these matter so deeply. Small things can be, and often are, essential.

            Now, our God is a God of small things. He’s the God of carpenters in little po-dunk towns like Bethlehem, he’s the God of a few fishermen who come to know God face-to-face, he’s the God of the lost, the hungry, the anxious, and the forgotten. And he’s the God of you and me as well.

But I think we often forget this. When we come to Jesus saying things like what we heard this morning, that “if we can’t be trusted in small things, how can we be trusted in big things”, when we hear that, we usually think that the big things are what really matter. And we think that, the small things are only stepping stones to the big things. We think: okay, I’ll do these small things and when I’m good with them, I’ll graduate on to medium things; and when I’m good with those, I can handle big, important matters. We do this with children. Right now, we’re teaching Gwendolyn to do chores. She’s four, so she can’t do much, so for now, she dusts the doorknobs. Soon she’ll be older and more capable, and so she can put away her clothes, or help with the dishes, or, you know, paint the house and do our taxes. But each step of the way, we give her something small, then build on it, with the intent that, when she’s older, she’ll be responsible with bigger things.

Now, I think this is good parenting (or, at least, I hope it is), but I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about. Jesus isn’t saying that, when we’ve gotten good at feeding the poor, we can graduate to working for world peace and forget about the poor, or that once we really get a handle on keeping this building in ship shape, we can handle the big stuff like keeping our national church in ship shape and St. James can go to rot. No, Jesus is saying that if you are faithful, if you are trustworthy, if you are honorable and good to the small details of life, there you will find God. Because what we think of as small isn’t really small; it’s essential.

For it may seem easy to us, but to someone who is starving, who is lost and doesn’t know where to turn, a bag full of food given with an open hand is a big thing. It may not seem like much, but a couple of dollars sent in love to a priest in Africa who runs a school for little girls to teach them and to keep them safe – that’s quite a lot for that priest, and it may mean the world to those little girls. And when we say a prayer, even just a quiet, short word to God, or we take five minutes from a busy day to sit with our Lord and Savior, we might think it a little thing, not worth much, but prayer has changed the world saved many from death and despair.

And when we see the world this way, when we see the weight and the glory of the small and the seemingly so insignificant, we see a light that we had almost missed, a brilliance that we had overlooked. For the world is not lost to darkness but alive with the light of God. And you will see that you yourself, and you yourselves together, are part of that light. No, not fully, for we are still beset with sin, and the hopes and efforts of our lives are still muddled and darkened. But the light of God, the living light of God, still shines forth, and it shines forth in all the good that we do, whether it’s big or small, whether we think it’s all that important or not. So do good. Do good with an open hand. Whether it’s tiny little things or great big things, who cares. Do good, love like Jesus loved and still loves you and will always love you.

God’s Mercy and Love

the 14th Day after Pentecost
Proper 18
15 September 2019

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Click here to access these readings.

        What does the mercy of God look like?  This is a great word: ‘mercy.’  We know what it means, surely.  You don’t have to pull out your phones and look up ‘mercy’ in the dictionary.  You know what it means, but what does it look like?  What does human mercy look like, and what does God’s mercy look like.

        God’s mercy is shown all throughout the Bible.  We see it in the story of Joseph that we’ll read this week for Emmaus Meals; we see it in the story of Jonah and of Ruth, and the story of Naaman who was washed clean of his leprosy.  We see it in our Old Testament reading this morning, where Moses asks God to turn away from his anger and look with mercy on the people of Israel.  We hear of it in the psalms and even in the prophets, which are so often about criticizing and pointing out fault, but all so that the people around them can be led more fully into the mercy and love of God.  Our God is a very merciful god.

        And God’s most merciful act was to come to this world in the form of a human being and live among us as Jesus Christ.  The life of Jesus, from the first moments of the Incarnation to the Cross and beyond it to the Resurrection, all of it was a mercy of God.  God saw that we were in pain, that we humans suffered and were crying out for help.  And God came to us and saved us, and not just those who were in pain but even those whose hearts were twisted and corrupted by the sin of hurting others.  As Jesus says in the gospels, God came to this world to save sinners.  God came in Jesus Christ to save all people, every one of us.

        And what does that mercy look like?  What does it look like on the ground?  Well, in our gospel reading today, it looks like Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Incarnated Word, hanging out with the worst sorts of people imaginable.  Now, we don’t have tax collectors like in Jesus’ time anymore, but, just so you know, these were some awful folks.  They were working for the Roman Empire, often extorting money, usually lining their own pockets, but also just plainly working with the folks who were oppressing their fellow countrymen.  These were not usually the nicest of people.  And yet Jesus ate with them.  It’s no wonder the Pharisees and scribes were a bit confused.

        Now, this reading here in the gospel – this scene and these two parables – are really important.  I think, often, we can get lost in thinking about how sinful we are.  We can look at ourselves, look at all the horrible things we’ve done in the past or said in the past or even just thought in the past, and we can wonder, “How in the world could God, who is perfect in any way, love someone as awful as me?”  And if we don’t do this to ourselves, then we do this to the world; we wonder, “The world is so terrible.  How could God save something this awful?”  We beat ourselves and our world up for our sins, we use them as weapons against ourselves.  And we imagine that God’s work is to stoop down into the muck that is us so that he can lift us up (with a clothes-pin on his nose because of the stench), wash us clean, scrub us down, hang us out to dry, and all so that when we get to heaven we won’t dirt on the clean, white carpet.  When we think this way, we imagine ourselves as stray dogs who don’t really belong with God but that God’s a nice guy and so doesn’t mind all the work he has to do to make us presentable.

        But God’s mercy works quite a bit different than that.  God’s mercy isn’t the same as endurance or a stiff upper lip.   Jesus wasn’t walking around down here with a look of disgust on his face because everyone was so sinful and horrible and he just couldn’t wait until he could go back home to his Father’s.  No, Jesus must have walked around with a look of compassion on his face, with an outstretched hand and an open ear.  The Pharisees come up to Jesus and they’re all like, dude, how can you deal with those people?    And Jesus turns their idea on its head and says, no, you’ve got it all wrong.  It’s not that we humans are basically unlovable but God loves us anyway; it’s that God sees us as blessed children who are lost and who need someone to come find them.  God does not start with our sins but from three words: “I love you.”  And it is from here that all God’s actions, all God’s justice, and all God’s mercy springs.

        Now, this doesn’t mean that sin isn’t bad.  It doesn’t mean that God is a nice, old, doting grandfather who will buy his grand-kids treats whenever he wants.  God’s love isn’t a blind love that just ignores the sin.  God knows our hearts inside and out.  This is what we mean when we pray, at the start of the service every Sunday: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”  God’s love doesn’t ignore that sin, but God’s love is founded on something much deeper than that.  God created us, brought us into being for the pure joy of loving something in fullness and in hope.  And that love caused God, when he heard us call out in despair, to come down to this world with his arms wide open so that he could embrace us all.

        This changes things, I think.  It changes the way – or it should change the way – that we treat others in our ministries, how we treat one another in the church, and how we treat our own selves.  And as I’m saying this, I’m kinda preaching to the choir.  Over the past couple of weeks, even months, a few people have come through that our culture would rather ignore.  But you invited them in, ate with them, cared for them, brought them into your lives in hope to heal them and make their lives better, even if just for an afternoon.  Down at the food bank, you laugh with people, you play with them, you ask them about themselves, and you do what you can to help.  And when Father Yohana asks for help, you opened your hearts to him as well.  You’ve formed a relationship with these folks and you’ve loved them, so that they’re part of our family here at St. James’ Episcopal Church.  I commend you all for the love that you have given the lost and lonesome.  It is the work of Jesus Christ that you do.

        And so I saw: keep loving.  Keep loving those people who walk in the door, and those who you meet on the street.  Keep loving yourselves, you who know all the darkest places – and the places of most grace – in your hearts and your lives.  And when you look out into the world and see more darkness, do not give up hope.  Remember that God came into this world to save sinners, to be with us at our darkest moments.  God is with us.  Never, ever forget that.

            And so I stand up here now to encourage you to continue.  We’ve opened our hearts here, and things haven’t always gone swimmingly.  Sometimes we’ve been hurt.  Sometimes we’ve had our help thrown back in our faces.  And we’ve learned through some trial and error how to do things better next time.  But, no matter what happens, we always stand up and keep going.  And we do so not because we have to, or because Jesus did it so I guess we better do it, too.  We love others, and we stand up to love others again and again and again, because love is the foundation of reality.  And as we live that love more fully, as we live God’s mercy in a world beset by sin and hatred, we become, more and more, that love.  For this is the work of God: to form all of us in love, to sustain us in love, and to form us into pure love in the image of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.