Sunday, October 31, 2004

Vera and Charles' Wedding

Tobit 8:5b-8 (NEB); Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; John 15:9-12

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love...I have said these things to you so that my joy may be complete in you, and that your joy may be complete.

We are here this afternoon because Vera and Charles have found abiding love. They have found joy, and here, in just a few moments, they will stand before God, their family, and their friends, and make their joy complete.

Love. Joy. Complete. Do any words better describe the smiles we’ve seen so often on their faces? They are the same words Jesus chooses to describe the kind of relationship we are able to have with him, the kind of relationship we are able to have with God. Love. Joy. Complete.

Love is a word we use so very often for so many different things. "I love you," we say to our beloved. "I love you," we say to our dearest friend. "I love you," more than one of us, I’m sure, has said to a chocolate dessert. When it can be used in these different ways, what does the word love really mean?

The Greek language of Jesus’ day used at least three different words for love. There was eros, desire, a sense of being drawn toward a thing or a person that we love. Eros was often associated with a very physical, intimate kind of attraction, which makes sense - we are, after all, human beings with skin and hair and eyes and hands....Eros - desire for the beloved.

There was also philia, mutuality, a sense of enjoying the company of the person we love and knowing that our company is enjoyed in return. It was often associated with a deep friendship, especially between persons who share something in common. Philia - friendship with the beloved.

Finally, there was agape, selfless love, a commitment to seek and do what is good, what is best, for the person that we love, no matter what the cost. Does it sound familiar? Agape is the word Jesus uses when he speaks of abiding in God’s love. Agape is the word Paul uses when he said that love is patient and kind. Agape is the word that is used when we read, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...."

Christian writer and classics scholar C.S. Lewis had a different take than the ancient Greeks on love. He wrote, "We murder to dissect. In actual life, thank God, the elements of love mix and succeed one another, moment by moment." Even agape - selfless love - is flat and lifeless without the passion of eros, desire, and the intimacy of philia, friendship. God’s love for us is complete, made up of desire and friendship and selfless giving, and Vera and Charles’ marriage will be for us a mirror of that all-encompassing kind of love.

The word joy has not been spread quite as thin as the word love in common usage. It still retains a sense of sparkle, a sense of pureness - pure happiness, gladness. Surely this marriage will also be a mirror for us of the joy Jesus anticipates when we return our love, however imperfectly, for his perfect love. Jesus knows that we will sometimes fail him, that we will sometimes fail one another. And yet he uses the word joy to describe being in relationship. It is no accident, then, that we use the word joy to describe the marriage relationship, as we heard just a moment ago - The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy.

And last, the word complete. Here it means something like being full, even full to overflowing, of who we were made to be. We are made to be in relationship with God and with one another. Of course Vera and Charles are both whole people, with full lives and rich histories and their own tremendous gifts and strengths. And yet, in their marriage, they will become, in some sense, more complete, more full of who they were made to be. And their marriage will be a mirror for us of the way we, too, become more fully ourselves when we enter into a relationship with God, and with others through God.

Love. Joy. Becoming complete. We are here this afternoon because these words describe what Vera and Charles have. We are here this afternoon because these words describe what we can all have with God through Jesus Christ.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love....I have told you these things that my joy may be complete in you, and that your joy may be complete. Amen.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

Wednesday Healing Service
2 Corinthians 4:11-18; Luke 24:44-48

"Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky....that's my name, too. Whenever we go out, the people always shout, there goes Samuel...."

Little Charlie can sing this song (well, John Jacob's version) at least 15 times in a row without ceasing to find it hilarious. I could read Samuel Isaac's story at least 15 times in a row without ceasing to find it inspirational.

I'm preaching on him tomorrow at the healing service. It's just a short homily, and I really am not supposed to use any notes, but there's so much I'd like to share about this incredible man. Perhaps I will just read from Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

Born in 1831 to Jewish parents in Lithuania, Samuel Isaac was studying for the rabbinate in Germany when a group of missionaries and his own study of a Hebrew translation of the New Testament introduced him to Christianity. He moved to America to train for the ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but switched teams midway through and finished his training as an Episcopalian at General.

After his ordination, Samuel Isaac accepted his bishop's call to serve in China. On the way there he learned to read and write Chinese. Good grief. Samuel Isaac would eventually become Bishop of Shanghai, found St. John's University in Shanghai, and make literally an entire life's work out of translating the Bible and other documents into various Chinese languages. Paralysis forced him to resign his cure in 1883, but he continued his work of translation until his death, typing more than 2,000 pages with only the middle finger of one partially paralyzed hand.

Late in his life, Samuel Isaac said, "I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted." This faith, this perseverance (the most raw display of faith we can make) - not what he accomplished with it - is, I think, what makes him a saint.

So do not lose heart, we will read in 2 Corinthians. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Do not lose heart. We may have more wrinkles - laugh lines, right? - around our eyes and mouths, we may have more gray hairs on our heads, we may lose the ability to use our bodies in the ways we were accustomed, but we do not lose the ability to serve as witnesses to God's work in the world.

The collect we will read says, "Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it." We do have permission, if our gift is not learning new alphabets and new languages in the length of time it takes us to travel to a new land, to do a smaller thing. The work we are given to do, whatever its size, is a piece of the coming of the kingdom of God, and so it is significant.

May we learn from Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky that perseverance - from taking the time to answer the call to taking time to finish a task - is a sure act of faith. May we learn from him that God does indeed provide us with the strength to do the things God calls us to. God wouldn't call us to do them otherwise. May we learn from Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky something of what it means to be a Christian, for that is our name, too.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Proper 23 C

Ruth 1:1-19a; Psalm 113; 2 Timothy 2:3-15; Luke 17:11-19

I cannot count the number of essays I wrote toward the end of high school and into college on the topic of "the most influential teacher you've ever had." Every application asked for it. On each one, I wrote about Dr. Bates.

At the beginning of 10th grade, I probably wouldn't ever have suspected I'd be writing positive things about him. From the first day of class, we knew we were in for something different. His survey of world history took us on a journey of thousands of years, and we felt every single step of it.

Looking back, of course, I see that Dr. Bates was up to much more than world history. He knew we were capable of learning more than names and dates, and he treated us as such. We read, we wrote, we debated, we challenged, we imagined....the single question that made up the final exam was: "Explain the history of the world." The amazing thing is, by the time we sat down with paper and pencil to answer that question, we knew how.

Dr. Bates paid careful attention to how we expressed ourselves, and he constantly challenged not only the content of our class discussions but even the turns of speech we used. Poor Bill Irwin (a well-liked boy with the unfortunate distinction of having a face that, when he was embarrassed, turned redder than tomato) was dragged up to the chalkboard one day to explain how one could "center around" an idea. Who knows what Bill had been talking about, but apparently he had said something was centered around something else, and Dr. Bates would have none of it.

Bill was asked to draw a point on the chalkboard - simple enough. Then Dr. Bates instructed him, "Now, with the chalk, center around that point." Bill stood there for a moment, his face practially pulsing red, and then finally drew a circle around the point. For the rest of the class period, we learned that "circling around" is not the same thing as "centering on." The center is the point in the middle, not the stuff around the edges.

From the safety of nearly seventeen years, I would humbly submit to Dr. Bates that perhaps God is indeed capable of what we are not. God, I submit, centers around. God, the center of the universe, walks to the edge of creation in the person of Jesus Christ. It was the sinners, the outcasts, the lost sheep Jesus came to redeem - not the folks safely tucked in the center. Jesus called everyone worthy of being in the center of God's love, and then sends us out to the margins with that love.

Jesus is feeling every step of his long journey toward Jerusalem. On the outskirts of a town, he encounters ten lepers. It is the only place he could have encountered them - their skin diseases kept them marginalized from the rest of Jewish society. Incredibly, Jesus tells these unclean, outcast people to go into town, all the way to the temple, and present themselves to the priests. It was probably not what they were hoping to hear. "You are healed," would have been nice. Only then would it have made sense for them to make for the temple - one cannot present one's self as healed and clean until one has actually been healed and made clean.

Let's give credit where credit is due. There is no good reason for any of these ten lepers to follow Jesus' instructions - in fact, in doing so, they could be risking their lives. They were not welcome in the temple. And yet, each one gets up and begins the journey from the margins to the center because Jesus told them to. It is a remarkable show of faith.

Perhaps that is why, somewhere along the way, they are healed. I wonder who noticed it first. I wonder what they said, what they did, what they thought had happened. We only know the response of one of those ten - the one leper who, finding himself healed, returns to Jesus. Luke doesn't tell us why this man returns and the others didn't - perhaps that's not important. What does Luke tell us?

He tells us the man was a Samaritan - a man on the margins of the margins. Even healed of leprosy he would not be welcome in a Jewish town and certainly not in the temple. And yet Jesus sent him off with the others to the temple in the center of the Jewish town to the temple, the center of the Jewish faith. Jesus had called him worthy to be healed. Jesus had called him worthy to stand in the center. And Jesus would tell him that his faith, although he was not a Jew, had made him well.

Luke tells us the man returned with shouts of praise to God. He threw himself down at Jesus' feet and thanked him. Perhaps he realized he would not be welcomed in the center. Perhaps he realized that the center of his newly healed life was still on the margins of town. And so he returned to the outskirts of town, where Jesus was still lingering, and offers thanks not in the holy of holies but before the Holy One himself. Perhaps the other nine did make it to the temple as Jesus had told them to do, and perhaps they gave thanks there. Apparently, that detail is not important. For Luke, it is important that one returns and gives thanks in the presence of God, where God is in that moment - on the margins.

Where are we in this story? Are we characters, or are we onlookers? Are we at the center or the margins? The answer must be....yes. We are centered around this story. We suffer from many diseases, as people have in every time and place, but the one that seems rampant among us is a sense of entitlement, a sense of deserving the good life, to the extent that we are easily able to become distanced and isolated from much of the world. We assume things are our "right", our "due" - we become preoccupied with our needs. Another preacher wrote, "It enables me to maintain my distance in the illusion of absolute independence. Healed of illness [of want, of need - when we get what our lives have been aching for] we wander off like the nine, because, after all, we're entitled to health."

The tenth leper turned back from his way, from the protection of distance, from the protection of the center, and threw himself at Jesus' feet on the margins of society. This was a second act of tremendous faith for him, for one who had so long been untouchable because of illness and would still be untouchable because of ethnicity. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and offered thanks, and in so doing, proclaimed his absolute dependence on God.

The same preacher wrote, "We cannot live at a distance and be truly healed at the same time. We are not really entitled to health or to joy or even to righteousness. Like the food that nourishes our bodies, these things do not grow up independently within us, but are literally foreign, alien to us, gifts from beyond ourselves that lure us into mutual interdependence with all others [which is to say, everyone] who have been embraced by a God who reached beyond the boundaries that we and the world have established to tell us we belong."

Jesus calls us to the center - to the center that is our faith community, to this worship space literally in the center of town, to the altar at the center of our worship space....and then he calls us to the margins, where Jesus himself is waiting, to the world "out there" where there are Samaritans all around - those whom we have pushed to the margins because they are not like us. The thanksgiving we offer at his feet here is a meal intended to prepare us, to strengthen us, to nourish us for the thanksgiving we will offer out there. After all, the beginning of our eucharistic prayer - the very beginning - acknowledges, "It is a right, good, and joyful thing always and everywhere to praise you...." Not just from the safety of the center.

And so, Dr. Bates, I humbly submit that as Christians, we are indeed called to center around Jesus Christ, himself the center and the margin and the place beyond the margin of love.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Proper 22 C

Habakkuk 1:1-13, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:3-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

We all know the story by now....the small group of companions traveling the road to the great city, their journey full of interruptions and side-trips, sometimes even full of danger. At every turn they complain about what they lack, what they are unable to accomplish or understand. The one who has brought them together is kind and wise and powerful, but never satisfactorily explains the significance of their journey or how they might make the way easier. Finally, certain that their lives cannot go on in the same way without serious intervention from the most powerful person they know, they cry out, "Increase our....our brains....our hearts....our courage...."

I don’t remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. But I remember being afraid of the Wicked Witch, and I remember dressing up as Dorothy one Halloween night, and I remember learning how to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the piano and singing along for all I was worth....We watched it every year when it came on television, cheering when Toto escaped from Miss Gulch’s bicycle basket, peering from behind pillows when the Witch appeared and disappeared in clouds of red smoke, giggling when the Lion’s tail wouldn’t stay hidden under his castle guard disguise, crying with Dorothy when she said goodbye to her friends.

The movie has managed to stay magic for me all these years. Who hasn’t wished, with Dorothy, that all the gray dreariness of life would give way to something more colorful, more exciting, more....alive. Who hasn’t been convinced that just on the other side of somewhere that better world was waiting, and all we had to do was get away from here and get to there. Who hasn’t been certain, like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, that if we only had a little more of something, our lives would be just right? If they only had the brains, the heart, the nerve....

At this point in Luke’s gospel, the disciples have been walking the road with Jesus for quite some time - we’ve been hearing about it since Pentecost. They’ve had all sorts of interruptions and side-trips - remember when Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the kingdom of God? Remember when they stopped by Martha and Mary’s house? And they’ve come face to face with danger - at least, Jesus has, in the form of religious leaders who are increasingly uncomfortable with what he is teaching. Remember when he talked about the narrow door that yet would admit all sorts of riff-raff into the kingdom? The Pharisees hadn’t liked the sound of that. And throughout this section of the gospel, Luke drops all sorts of hints that Jesus knows exactly what dangers are waiting for him in the great city of Jerusalem.

Most recently, Jesus has been talking about discipleship, about what it means to follow him on this road. He’s talked about giving up all one’s possessions. He’s talked about placing God before family. He’s talked about persevering in the face of opposition and evil. In the verses just before today’s gospel begins, he’s talked about the need to forgive people without exception, without limit, without conditions.

It must have been this forgiveness bit that pushed the disciples over the edge. They had been struggling to understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables, to be compassionate toward those Torah called untouchable, to be loyal to Jesus despite the danger....they’d used up all the brains and heart and courage they had, and they cried out in desperation, Increase our faith!

Who among us hasn’t wished, with the disciples, that we had more faith? That, with more faith, we could transform gray dreariness into color; that then, we could make the world better; that then, surely, our lives would be fulfilled? If we only had the faith....If only....If....

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request hinges on the word "if." In the Greek language, conditional clauses beginning with "if" either show that a situation is contrary to fact (as in "if you were me, which clearly you are not") or they show that the situation is in accordance with fact. It is this second kind of conditional clause that Jesus uses. If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, which is to say, you do have at least this much faith.... you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I’m not sure if it’s what the disciples wanted to hear or not. Jesus wouldn’t increase their faith, but he didn’t judge them by how much faith they had. He affirmed their faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, and told them even that was enough to do impossible, absurd, unthinkable things, like planting mulberry trees at the bottom of the ocean. Faith the size of a grain of mustard seed - barely visible, barely there at all....

The thing is, I don’t think Jesus was measuring their faith at all, not as they were, not as we are inclined to do, as though an extra pound or two of faith would make them or us more competent as disciples, would make it easier to understand, to love, to be brave. Faith isn’t measured by more or less - faith is either there or it is not.

Robert Farrar Capon writes, "It is not as if we have a faith meter in our chests, that our progress toward salvation consists in cranking it up over a lifetime from cold to lukewarm to toasty to red hot....If we have anything in our chests, it is....a simple switch: on, for yes to Jesus....and off, for no. The head of steam we work up in throwing the switch, either way, has nothing to do with the case."

Jesus tests our faith right away in yet another difficult-to-understand parable, which many have called the parable of the "unworthy" slave. But this week a friend whose brains and heart and courage I admire suggested a better title might be the parable of the "faithful" slave. This slave works hard all day in the fields, and then returns home not to eat a well-deserved dinner but to cook and serve dinner for the slave owner. There is no thanks, no reward. The slave was only doing faithfully what slaves were supposed to do - it’s not as though he went above and beyond the call of duty.

It is an imperfect parable for us today, because we regard slavery in such a different light than those in Jesus’ time. But it can still teach us, perhaps all the more powerfully, because the only parallel that might even begin to make sense to us is that of a disciple. Christian discipleship is hard work, so hard that even those who walked with Jesus in the flesh believed they were inadequate for the task. Christian discipleship is a Christian’s duty - it is not something above and beyond what we are called to do. Increase our faith!

If we have said yes to Jesus - even a mustard-seed-sized yes - then we have the faith we need. Faith, the willingness to imagine God at work in us and through us, doing impossible things. If we can imagine a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea, if we can imagine bread and wine filling us with God, if we can imagine an empty tomb, can’t we also imagine an end to hunger, poverty, war, genocide, discrimination, hatred, fear? Are these things really so impossible?

Christian discipleship is hard work, it is long work, and it is work that is not rewarded, not in the way we are accustomed to being paid for our efforts. It does not earn us God’s favor - we already have that. Christian discipleship is, in fact, our response to the faith that is already given to us by God. Christian discipleship is our living of that faith, our imagining that God can and does work through us, growing our mustard seed efforts to impossible heights. Faith is not measured by more or less - it is measured by the effort, by the life we put into it.

The slave is faithful to his life calling, and although it is an imperfect image for us, we might redeem it by considering that we, too, should be faithful in our work, the work we were called to in our baptism, proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace.

After they have finished all the tasks set before them - traveling to the great Emerald City, defeating the Wicked Witch of the West, and bringing the witch’s broomstick to the Wizard’s chambers - after they have done all the work they were given to do, Dorothy and her companions were angry and hurt to discover that they would not be rewarded for their efforts. The things they so desperately longed for in their lives would not be given to them.

The Wizard did not increase their brains, their hearts, their courage - instead, he shows them that all they had accomplished together was made possible by the ways in which they had already acted wisely, compassionately, and courageously. They didn’t need more - they needed to learn to see what they already had, and to see that it was more than enough.

I think, perhaps, L. Frank Baum might have liked our baptismal liturgy if he had seen it, for the prayer said over us after the mustard seeds of our faith have had their first good soaking reads: "Give them an inquiring and a discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you...."

Increase our faith! No, Jesus tells us. Release your faith. Let it live, let me work in you and through you and together we will do impossible things. Amen.