Sunday, June 27, 2010

Proper 8C

I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

I'm going home tomorrow, back to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I went to high school and where my mom still ives.  My friend Sherry and her family still live there, too, and I hope I'll get a chance to see her.  Or at least to pass her a little note.

We were skilled note-passers in high school, filling sheets of notebook paper with giggles and gossip, hopes and heartbreak, doubts and teenage drama.  Then we folded the paper in that time-honored fashion, tucking one corner in to make sure it didn't unfold accidentally, revealing it's sacred contents to just anyone.  In the hallways or at our lockers or at the end of lunch, we passed the notes to each other and hurried to our next class so that we could read them before the bell rang.

Now, a traditional feature of our notes was the question.  It could be any question, but it was usually something like, "Do you think he's cute?" or "Would you ask him out?" followed by three empty squares drawn in pencil with the instructions, "Check one: yes, no, maybe."  And you thought very carefully about your answer before you checked a box, folded it back up, and returned it to your friend because after all, it was important - it was about relationships, about love.

I don't pass notes anymore.  Sherry and I keep up through email and Facebook and the occasional phone call or visit.  But I think about those boxes often - every time, in fact, that I update my computer or download a program or create an on-line account and a window appears with the words "End User License Agreement" followed by a long, long, long note filled with...well, to be honest I've never read one all the way through.  It's the contract that states you'll use the software appropriately, and at the end is a question: "Do you agree to these terms and conditions?  Check one: yes, no."  We should think very carefully about our answer because after all, it is important - it is about a relationship, and if we agree to it, we'll be asked to exit all programs and restart our computers before we can run the new program.

Papyrus was harder to fold than notebook paper, I suppose, and anyway Jesus much preferred to ask questions in person instead of in a note, to meet people face to face.  So it is that Jesus met three would-be disciples on the road to Jerusalem and he presented to them the terms and conditions of following him.  Turn away from your home.  Turn away from your family.  Turn away from your work, from whatever your livelihood is.  Exit all programs.  Restart.  Then follow me.

If it sounds harsh to us now, imagine how it must have sounded in a time and place when no one ever did anything new.  Most people never left home but instead worked the same land of labored at the same skill their parents had learned from their parents.  Wages earned were solely for the care and keeping of one's extended family, often including multiple generations dwelling under one mud and straw roof.  The ancient law given to their ancestors, once a breathtakingly new expression of relationship, of love, between God and God's people, had become in practice rigid and rote, binding and brutal.

How drawn they were to Jesus, a breath of fresh air they would come to know as Spirit, a rabbi, prophet, and - dare the hope? - messiah who spoke of things like life and love and healing and a magnificent kingdom of God in which the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, and the poor and lowly would be lifted up.  I will follow you wherever you go, someone exclaimed, overcome by the wonder of it all.

Long before the days of Facebook, which also has boxes you can click in response to things other people say - "Check one: like, ignore" - long before the days of Facebook allowed us to express our enthusiasm for things without actually acting on them, Jesus needed to make sure this would-be disciple understood that the box he was checking was important, that it was about relationship, that it was about love.  Not the "Do you think he's cute, would you ask him out" kind of love but, rather, love that is resolute, love that is fierce, love that is generous and unwavering and free.  Love that restarts everything.

In fact, while this gospel story has long been read as a strong statement on the difficult demands of discipleship, demands that disciples devote themselves without remainder to following Christ, that they check "yes" knowing that they are choosing everything he stands for, everything he loves, everything he lives for, everything he dies for...while this gospel story has long been read as concerning discipleship, some have suggested that it also reveals something of the kingdom of God that disciples are called to proclaim, something of the reign of God's love, something of the relationship between God and God's people.  Scholar Richard Shaffer even wonders if the heart of the story, underneath all the terms and conditions, all the questions and boxes, if the heart of the story might be "Jesus' singlemindedness of purpose that is prompted by God's profound love for humanity and all the world."

It has sounded harsh ever since that day on the road when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  What is it that in ever age has lured would-be disciples into a singlemindedness of purpose that serves only ourselves, our desires, our needs, our wants?  That makes it difficult to choose a singlemindedness of purpose that serves love, which is to say, that serves God, and serving God, serves others?  Some say it is self-indulgence that causes us to hesitate over these boxes, wondering which to check.  Some say it is greed, some say it is evil, some say it is fear.  Fear of scarcity, fear of finitude, fear of limitations.  Sometimes, overcome by the wonder of it all, we say to Christ, I will follow you wherever you go.  And sometimes, like the townspeople in our gospel story, we refuse even to welcome him.  Sometimes, like James and John, our first choice is destructive anger.  Sometimes, like so many other would-be disciples, we give up, we procrastinate, we make excuses, we get distracted, we turn back, we check "maybe," or maybe "no."

But if Christ's singleminded purpose is God's love for all the world, then the kingdom is not lost; indeed, it is among us before we even know to choose it.  Listen again to the gospel story, how Jesus reveals himself and God's kingdom to those on the edge of discipleship.  Jesus, love incarnate, in whom God's reign has come, has no place to lay his head because love cannot be contained in a fox hole or a bird's nest or a building of any kind.  Love's home is everywhere, and indeed it is so vast that all things are at home in it.  Jesus, through whom all things were made and who made the earth a new creation, cannot be stopped by death or its trappings.  He has overcome the power of death to consume us, and bids us lay aside our fear.  Jesus, who for love set his face toward Jerusalem and never once looked back, in every miracle and parable and teaching and touch showed that God's reign is gracious and generous and vast and lovely, such that even those things that seem most important to us and demand our attention pale in comparison to it.  We would-be disciples are urged not to let anything in all the world delay us or weigh us down or hold us back from our "yes" to relationship, our "yes" to love, our "yes to following everywhere Jesus goes.

And so we, when like so many disciples before us we trembling check that box...yes...we become part of the good news, part of the kingdom unfolding.  He meets us on the roads we walk, in homes we keep, in the families we have, in the livelihoods we lead, and there he calls us to a singlemindedness of purpose - his purpose.  The terms and conditions are these, that in all the relationships in our lives, all the places we inhabit, all the work we do, all the roads we walk, all the strangers we encounter, all the courage we muster, all the hope we humbly hold...that everything we are and everything we do derive its meaning and joy and mission from God's profound love for humanity and all the world.

Perhaps the apostle Paul was baptized according to the Book of Common Prayer, for he writes often of the choice to follow Christ, and never once does he presume that he can meet the demands of discipleship alone.  I will, with God's help, it is as if he says over and again in his letters to the disciples and would-be disciples of his day.  Of course that's what following is, right?  We go not be ourselves but in relationship, we go with the one who goes before us, each step bringing us further into the knowledge and experience of God's reign all around us.  When left to our own devices, bound to our fears in a world where love and life's resources appear scare, finite, limited, we choose such things as lust, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, envy...Paul's list is long and accurate.  Living by the Spirit, though, understanding that God who cannot be contained in any dwelling yet dwells in our hearts, we are able to choose love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, kingdom fruits.

Thomas Merton, 20th century monk, priest, poet, scholar, and disciple, knew as did Paul, as do we when we are honest, that we find ourselves still trembling and hesitant on that road to Jerusalem, desiring in our deepest hearts to follow, knowing that it is important, that it is about relationship, that it is about love.  I offer you Merton's prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following you does not meant hat I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire for all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me.  Amen.

Artwork: Image from; "Pilgrimage," by Grace Collins; "Thoughts on Communion," by Barbara Desrosiers; "Looking," by RaRa Schlitt; "A Cloud of Witnesses," by Mary Melikan.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Two by Two (by Three)

I am so tired.  Maybe it has something to do with Friday night's sleepover when my son and his friend woke up to save the universe from evil clones at 4:45 am.  Maybe it has something to do with Saturday night's last-minute sermon writing.  Maybe it has something to do with Sunday's church services, one in the morning and one in the evening, each an hour away from home.  Maybe it has something to do with this.

I can't stop knitting.

My friends Julie and Sarah picked two socks on two circular needles as a summer project, and patiently helped me get started on the cuffs of mine when they were nearing the heels of theirs.  I've knit two pairs of socks on dpn's but at this point I'm having trouble remembering why anyone would ever choose to do that when you could knit them on two circular needles.  I love this method!

My yarn is Deborah Norville's Serenity Sock in blues and greens.  The superwash merino, bamboo, and acrylic content creates a wonderfully soft texture with just a hint of sheen.

Not only am I learning how to knit two socks on two circulars (really, is there any other way?!), but in the process I've also learned how to do the long tail cast on, how to slip slip purl, and how to pick up dropped stitches.  Well, that last one isn't exactly in the pattern...

Now, just a few more rounds of gusset decreases before I go to bed...

Friday, June 18, 2010

I do still preach...

In fact, this blog originally began as a place to save my sermons against the possibility of my computer literally melting inside.  Which it did.  Twice.

Back then, my sermons were the most important things saved on my computer.  I labored hours and hours on each one, delivered them in congregations I deeply cared for, and rather than dismissing them at "thanks be to God" I wanted to hold on to them like photographs of a growing vocation, snapshots of an evolving priesthood.

Surely you backed up, you say.  Surely, I should have.  And as surely as I didn't, I lost many of my early sermons somewhere inside those two melted laptops.  Surely you began backing up then, you say.  Surely, I should have.  But blogging was taking root and growing and evolving, and I thought that saving my sermons to a blog would be a way not only for me to archive them but, if I were ever bold enough, to easily share them with others beyond the pews of my own parish.

Some of the first blogs I read were knitting blogs, and I as much as I enjoyed seeing the yarns and patterns and projects displayed in them, I was also amazed by the writing.  It seems that knitting and writing go hand in hand, as Christian journalist and activist Dorothy Day wrote, "Knitting is very conducive to thought.  It is nice to knit a while, put down the needles, write a while, then take up the sock again."

Writing and knitting are very similar, at least in my experience.  When I'm writing a sermon it feels very much like choosing threads and patterns and weaving together something that can be worn as comfort or as adornment (like a sock or a scarf), or something that can carry or contain a piece of life (like a bag), or something that can be useful in tending to life's needs (like a wash cloth or a blanket).  The stories of our faith traditions and the stories of our lives are closely knit.

Sometimes my sermons come unraveled, just like life and even faith can.  Knitting has helped me imagine that a garbled pile of words and images, like a garbled pile of yarn, can be picked up again and knit more tightly or perhaps more loosely, combined with another thread, or placed in a pattern more suited to its color and texture and drape.  Sometimes sermons flow onto the page (or the computer screen) with ease, like garter stitch, and speak through their simplicity.  Other times they are a challenge and must be woven together slowly and deliberately, every word carefully placed like stitches in a lace shawl, to create a text that speaks to the complexity and mystery of God.

Lately, my sermons have felt more garbled than graceful, and I haven't posted them.  But I snuck one in just before this post, and perhaps will return to sharing them from time to time as photographs and snapshots not only of my vocation and priesthood but also as echoes of how knitting, picking up threads and creating out of them garments and gifts, has woven its way into my life and faith.

Artwork: Photo of my desk at home (a little straightened up for my dear readers); "Trio," by Marilyn Green.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Proper 6C

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Summer officially begins in just about a week, a fact that hardly needs noting with the heat index already climbing over one hundred degrees.  I've lived all my life in the South, and while I love ice-cold lemonade and fresh peaches, I really don't like hot weather or sweet tea, and so I spend my summers searching for and sitting in the shade.

Some of my favorite summers were spent at my grandparents' house in Spartanburg, SC.  May brother and I were little then, and we spent nearly every hour of every long summer day playing together, even when we were supposed to be resting after lunch, that hottest part of the day when our shadows disappeared beneath our bare feet and even the blue sky burned in the sun.  Summer was the season when the afternoon shadows grew impossibly long and daylight lingered in the air well past bedtime.  We played then, too, chasing fireflies round and round the shadows of trees and grown-ups.  We played after we were tucked in the two giant-sized beds in the spare room we sometimes shared upstairs.  A nightlight bathed one wall of that room in a soft glow, making just enough light for us to create an entire arkful of shadow animals with our fingers.

The shades and shadows of summer were always part of our play...except when they didn't seem playful.  On rainy days we played inside that big old house, from the attic all the way down to the basement.  The staircase to the basement turned several corners before it reached the cool damp bottom, and every flick of a light switch illuminated just enough of the long way down and around that you could almost see the next light switch in the shadows.  Piles of forgotten old books and rolled up posters and maps and dusty pillows became spooky shapes in the dim basement light.  At night we laughed at the shadow animals we made with our fingers, but the shadows behind the closet door or under the bed were no laughing matter.

These are the sorts of shadows, in which lurk real and imagine dangers, that we borrow when we speak of having shadow sides, when we speak of being shady.  They are the shadows we wrap around ourselves to hide the real and imagine parts of us that hurt and that cause hurt.  Like piles of old books and posters and pillows, perhaps if we shove these parts of us into the shadows, they will be forgotten.

This morning's readings flip a light switch on for us, challenging us to see an all too real part of ourselves that cause all too real hurt - we are challenged to see our sinfulness.  Individually and as a community of faith, we prefer to sweep the reality of our sin into the shadows, to politely say the confession and receive our absolution and then say no more about it.  But this morning we are asked to face our fear of sin's darkness and learn how to walk in the light.  In our readings this morning we hear the stories of a man and a woman who have done just that: King David, and the unnamed woman of our gospel story, sinners who overcame the shadows of their wrongdoings and welcomed the bright sunlight of God's forgiveness.

As king, David should have protected the lives of his people.  Instead, David gave orders that poor Uriah be killed, and then took Uriah's beautiful wife, Bathsheba, as his queen.  Of course none of this dark plan was hidden from God, who sent the prophet Nathan to confront the terrible shadows of David's life.  As king, David recognized immediately the sin of the rich man in the story Nathan told.  As a sinner, David couldn't see that the shadow cast by the rich man was, in fact, his own.  Do you see this man? Nathan demanded.  You are the man!  The story is about you, David!  You, upon whom God has lavished such gracious care; you, whom God has always protected.  The story is about you, to whom God gave the responsibility of caring for and protecting others.  You are the man!

And David saw the light.  I have sinned against the Lord, he acknowledged humbly, and though he would still suffer the consequences of his actions, he would not suffer the darkness of separation from the Source of his life, the Source of all life and illumination, who lavished forgiveness upon him not for the first time, and not for the last.

As a Pharisee, a keeper of God's law, Simon should have known that the law was given to teach people how to live in relationship with one another and with God, who had long ago promised, I am the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.  Instead, Simon used the law as a lens through which he could see shades and shadows, judge the depth of darkness in a person, and crop them out of his picture of salvation.  When a woman began weeping at the feet of one of his dinner guests, Simon saw through his trusted lens a sinner at the feet of a fool.  As a Pharisee, Simon recognized immediately the picture in the story Jesus told - the greater the debt that is canceled, the more gratitude the debtor displays.  As a debtor, not in denarii but in sin, Simon couldn't see that the story's shadow was cast, in fact, over himself.  Do you see this woman? Jesus demanded.  Do you really truly see her?  Do you see yourself, Simon?  Do you really truly see yourself?

Perhaps the presence of light and shadow in that room was as uncertain as a child's nightlight lit bedroom, filled with playful shadow animals and scary dark corners.  Do you see? Jesus demanded.  Simon sees a sinner, a woman whose life is unclean and so whose touch would make others unclean.  When she takes down her hair to wipe Jesus' feet, Simon sees also a fool, a man who could not possibly be the teacher and prophet he is reputed to be.  In both Jesus and the woman, Simon sees the shadow side of the law that is his guiding light.

Do you see this woman?  Do you see?  Jesus also sees a sinner.  He sees two sinners.  He sees the woman, who knows she has nothing to hide, and just as his forgiveness has washed her clean, so she now washes his feet in a generous and loving act of gratitude.  Jesus also sees Simon, who is blind to the light of the world at his own table, who has cast people like the woman into the shadow and, though he cannot see it, has shuttered himself from God as he brandishes his own righteousness like a torch and works his own way to salvation.

Do you see this woman?  Do you see?  The woman sees a savior.  She sees the one who has already invited her to God's table, who has welcomed her as an honored guest, and forgiven her before she ever knew to ask.  She sees the one who loves her despite her sins and shades and shadows.  She sees the one who has shown her how to be in relationship, how to invite and welcome others, how to forgive, and how to love.  Another preacher writes, "The woman's extravagance is a picture - [a bright reflection] - of the extravagance of God's grace."

Do we see?  Do we really truly see?  With God, our sins are forgiven before we ask, even if we never ask, even if, like David and Simon, we never realized we needed forgiving in the first place until we were shown the light.  God has let our sins go.  And yet, our sins will continue to overshadow us if we are not able to confess them, to acknowledge our inability to stay in relationship with God and with others without God's help and grace and love and forgiveness.  Do you see? Jesus demanded.  The woman's sins, which were many, have already been forgiven by God's love and grace; therefore she is able to show great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, who is blind to his own need for forgiveness, he shows little love.  Our sins are forgiven, we are washed and anointed and given a seat at the table.  The only thing required of us is the openness to receive this lavish gift of grace, God's cancellation of every debt, God's forgiveness of every sin, God's welcome of all people.  You.  Me.  David.  The unnamed woman.  Even, bless his heart, Simon.

Or do we, too, suffer, from time to time, from something of the same self-righteousness - I mean, blindness - that afflicted Simon?  Do we judge him?  Do we think ourselves better than him?  Do we justify our dislike of him by his dislike of others?  Do we distance ourselves from him?  Do we see this man?  Do we see?  Jesus, charged by the Pharisees of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners, sees Simon the sinner, and in showing him what grace and gratitude look like in the life and actions of the woman, he shows Simon the light.  So also Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners, sees us.  Jesus, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets or shades or shadows are hid, really truly sees us.

When we open our eyes and see the grace that bathes us from head to our own weary feet and toes; when we face our fear of the dark and reach deep down inside ourselves to offer up our shadows and shades, our sins, our hurt, and all that separates us from God and from one another, then we are saved.  And yet salvation is not so much a prize we earn or a destination we can ever reach as it is a way of living that may be perfected beyond our life in this place but is lived in part right here and now when we allow God's grace to illuminate our lives and all the lives and all the world around us.  Salvation is lived in part right here and now when we in turn carry that light into the world, not to cast shadows around others but instead to see how they, too, shine.  For forgiveness is not restoration to what we were before - it is newness of life, and it carries with it an invitation to walk with Jesus, through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the reign of God - a reign in which the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the sick are cured, the deaf hear, and dead are raised, and the poor are raised up.

As we are willing to receive forgiveness, as we are willing to receive grace, as we are willing to love in response, as we are willing to welcome all people to the table, as we are willing to live and work not for salvation but because we are already saved, so then will we be able to say with Paul, It is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  Amen.

Artwork: "Vesper Light," by Angela Wales Rockett; "David and Bathsheba," by Marc Chagall; "The Allabastar Jar," by Daniel Bonnell; "Gracious Spirit," by Anne Randolph Rechter; "The Center of Everything," by John C. Little; "Elemental," by the Reverend Caroline Kramer.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I do still blog...


Over and over again I told folks that the end of the school year was, for the chaplain, not nearly as busy as it is for students and faculty.  What I had forgotten was that it is actually overwhelmingly busy...just not in a creative way.  I didn't have to write any sermons or craft any new prayers, but I did have to attend a bazillion rehearsals and pray a bazillion graduation prayers and offer a bazillion blessings to students and families and faculty moving up or moving on or moving out...

The only sermon I did work on was for Trinity Sunday, and if it was possible to make the doctrine of the Trinity even more complicated than it already is, I did it.  Somehow I ended up weaving together Alice in Wonderland, poetry about math, the Athanasian Creed, particle physics, and perichoresis (the divine dance of the persons of the Trinity in unity...see?  Ugh...) in one overly long sermon.  Not one of my finer moments in the pulpit.

What kept me sane through these weeks was this.

White.  Garter stitch.  Utterly and completely and extraordinarily simple.  Knit in cotton to become a soft little washcloth to be given with a pretty bar of soap as a gift.  The mindless knitting was such a relief, even as I ended up having to rush to finish it on time.  At the last minute, not to complicate things but just to add a little fun, I added this:

With this:

It turns out, after years of only knitting, I do still crochet!  I found this wonderful video that explained how to do the scalloped border, and if you'll please pardon the pun, I'm hooked!