Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Sermon about Zacchaeus

The story of Zacchaeus is pretty familiar to most of us. It’s almost like a children’s story; Zaccheus, despite the fact that he is a wealthy home-owning tax collector, seems like a little kid himself.  He is short, he can’t see over the big people, he runs, and he climbs trees.  
This story is only found in the Gospel of Luke, and it plays an important role in one of Luke’s favorite themes: the danger of wealth and the proper use of money.  Along with the other gospels, Luke reports of Jesus meeting with a rich young man who is unable to give away his possessions, of Jesus saying that one cannot serve God and wealth and that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.  But it is only Luke who tells about the Good Samaritan who spent his money caring for the man who was robbed, beaten and left by the side of the road; and tells about the rich man who found himself, after his death, in Hades and with a great chasm between himself and poor Lazarus who was being comforted in the bosom of Abraham after being ignored by the rich man in life. Luke also is the only Gospel writer who tells us of the widow who found a lost coin and spent more than she found rejoicing with her friends, and the generous father who spends his wealth celebrating the return of his prodigal son.  Today’s story, the Zacchaeus story, is the climax of all of Luke’s stories about money.  It is the story of a rich man who makes it through the eye of the needle and receives salvation, who gives away his money and makes restitution to those whom he has wronged. 
So this charming scene plays an important part in the story line in Luke about the right use of money.  It is also just about the last story Jesus tells before he enters into Jerusalem to great fanfare on Palm Sunday.  Luke says that Jesus told this story as he passed through Jericho, the city which, in the Old Testament Joshua story, was the gateway to the promised land.  For Jesus, too this last stop before Jerusalem, the city where he would die, was his entrance into the promised land.
Zacchaeus, too, finds Jericho to be the entrance to the promised land.  For him, it was meeting Jesus that gave him entrance into the kingdom.  It was being sought out by Jesus, being singled out to host Jesus who invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, that gave Zacchaeus a new life.  A new life of generosity, a life of doing justice and loving mercy, a life of righteousness - being in right relationship with God and neighbor.  Salvation has come to Zacchaeus, who once was lost but now has been found.
Meanwhile, however, in the midst of this stunning story of salvation, the people grumbled about Jesus hanging around with sinners.  We’ve seen this before, too.
Oh, that Jesus.  Instead of hobnobbing with the righteous, he goes to eat with sinners.  He touches lepers, he lets odd women wipe his feet with their hair, he befriends tax collectors who work for the hated Roman empire and rip people off.  Does anybody in the Bible ever praise Jesus for hanging out with the marginalized, the unclean and the uncool?

But as Jesus himself says, he came to seek out and save the lost.  And still, the people grumble, shaking their heads, because they consider the lost to be abhorrent and unworthy.  The people believe there is a reason why they are lost: they are not morally fit to be in the presence of a holy man or so-called righteous people.  The people know because the scriptures say so, at least some of the scriptures do.  For it is true that in the Bible, there is always this tension between purity and inclusiveness.  The Scriptures stress both of these things, and people tend to gravitate toward one or the other.  Read some parts of the Torah and the book by the prophet Ezekiel and you get a big dose of the purity strain.  And then read other parts of the Torah and the prophet Isaiah and the book of Ruth and you get a big dose of the inclusivity strain.
But when we get to Jesus, mostly what we get is inclusiveness.  You almost never hear Jesus saying that someone is unfit to be in his company.  You almost never hear him talking about purity other than to disdain it. He dines with Pharisees and tax collectors alike.  He touches dead people.  He refuses to condemn the woman caught in adultery and challenges those who wish to stone her to go right ahead if they have never sinned themselves.  
In fact, the people Jesus criticizes the most are the religious establishment - people who are concerned with their own power, people who nitpick about rules and castigate and exclude others while affirming their own religious superiority.  And, as we have seen, Jesus also criticizes the wealthy, those who are overly concerned with their money and their possessions.   And yet even one of the wealthy makes it through the eye of the needle, our small friend Zacchaeus.
These stories are two thousand years old now.  In some ways we find them to be from another world, which of course they are.  First century Palestine is long, long ago and far, far away.  But because these stories are also part of our story, we read them not only historically but also theologically.  What does the story of Zacchaeus have to do with us in our desire to know and obey the will of God for us and for the world?  If we get stuck on outmoded categories like “tax collectors for the Roman Empire” and “lepers” we may imagine that this has almost nothing to do with us.  
But I would ask, who are the tax collectors, the lepers, the ones the Pharisees and other upstanding citizens would call sinners in our day?  And do we grumble about them?  Do we stand against them on account of purity concerns?  Even when we see them eagerly pursuing a glimpse of Jesus?  Even when we see them responding to the Gospel with generosity and seeking to do justice and love mercy?  Do we set ourselves up between them and Jesus to keep him (and perhaps ourselves) holy and undefiled by association with people we think of as sinners?
Of course, this is understandable. Even the disciples tried to get between Jesus and those who sought his healing and his blessing.  Remember them sternly telling parents not to bring their children to bother Jesus?  In fact, one time even Jesus himself tried to reject a non-Jewish woman who sought healing for her daughter.  That was not one of Jesus’ finest moments, I think.  He started out on the purity track himself.
But of course Jesus changed his mind. After actually meeting the Gentile woman and seeing both her need and her faith, he welcomed a new idea, that Gentiles were worthy, Gentiles could be saved, too.  He healed the woman’s daughter, and he overrode the people who tried to block others from his mercy.  He taught the disciples to let the little children come to him, for theirs too is the kingdom of God.  Unless you come like a child - like one who can’t see over the adults and runs and climbs trees, perhaps - you won’t be able to enter the kingdom.  You’re on shaky ground if you’re like one of the adults who blocks the way, who stands between Jesus and one who seeks his blessing.
There is always this tension between purity and inclusiveness.  I mean, what if we just let anybody in?  What if we are not granted a special - or even exclusive - place in the kingdom?  You know that old joke about all the rooms in heaven, one for each denomination, and how when St Peter gives you the tour, he tells you to be quiet when you are near the door where a certain denomination’s members are, because they think they’re the only ones there.   You can fill in the blank about what denomination you think the joke’s about, but it’s one of those jokes that’s really funny and at the same time it can make us a little squirmy because sometimes the joke is on us.  
For ever and ever people have been trying to throw other people out - out of church, out of town, out of their families, out of heaven.  There’s that whole taint of association thing - if we let a sinner in here among us then we’re all tainted.  This is what the people grumble about with Jesus.  He eats with sinners - he treats them as if they are of his own class.  He treats them like equals, he treats them with dignity.  
And what we seem to forget is that Jesus doesn’t need us to protect him from being tainted.  Jesus removes taints.  We are all sinners.  This is God’s church, not our church.  It’s God’s heaven, not our heaven.  Jesus ignores and overcomes those who go overboard on the purity side, trying to stand between him and those who desire his mercy. He finds them and includes them despite our grumbling.  He calls them home, carries them home like lost sheep, to be restored to the fold.  His fold, not our fold. 
We are promised the kingdom.  We will have everything.  We don’t need to spar over who is in and who ought to be left out; we can be generous as God is generous.  As Zacchaeus responds to Jesus in generosity, promising to act with justice and mercy, so we can respond to Jesus, too, with generosity and mercy, with acts of justice, for Jesus has come to our house today, too.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Is Civility Dead?

Today we were at the Post Office to renew a passport.  We arrived right at 9:00 a.m. when the P.O. opened and already there were several people in line for both passports and stamps/package mailing.  There were two clerks helping people, and of course each clerk was assisting a customer in turn while the rest of us were waiting in turn.

Suddenly a woman comes in and starts talking to the clerk on the end, who was assisting another customer.  The woman starts talking about needing a copy of something but the copy machine is broken.  The clerk says, yes, I'm sorry but it's not working, and goes back to her customer.  The woman then walks up to the clerk and says that she will just have to write everything down and tells the clerk she needs to give her a piece of paper and a pen.  The clerk says that she is assisting another customer and that she will help her when she is finished.  The woman keeps talking, saying she just wants some paper and a pencil.  The clerk says a little more sternly that she is assisting another customer and that she will help the woman when she is finished.

The woman says, "Jesus!" and stomps off.

Then a man comes in and asks if the copy machine is broken.  The other clerk (who was assisting a customer) pauses and says, "Yes, sorry, it's not working."

When it was our turn with the clerk, yet another man comes in and asks our clerk for a pen.  The clerk ignores him as he is explaining something to us but then since the man was still standing there, the clerk paused and handed him a pen.

Meanwhile the first woman comes back in; she is talking on the phone, loudly.  She is saying she doesn't know what the clerk's name is because she is not wearing a name tag.  Then she walks through the line to get close to the clerk to see if she has a name tag on the other side of her blouse, which she does.  The clerk says her name to the woman and shows her the name tag.  The woman repeats it into the phone.

And people complain about the Post Office.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Fountain Break

This fountain is on the campus of Yale.  Just like last Friday's Friday Fountain Break!  Most colleges have some fountains.  Most of these fountains have at one time or another been sudsy and frothy because some students put Tide in them.  But I digress, as I am sure this has never happened at Yale.

This fountain was designed by Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC and who was an undergraduate at Yale.  The Yale fountain is called The Women's Table and commemorates the story of women at the college.  You can read about that here.   It stands just outside the front doors to the gorgeous Stirling Library.

The Women's Table is a truly stunning fountain - if you find yourself in New Haven, stop by and see it.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Remember that song by Pete Seeger, which was recorded by The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and many others?  The chorus goes:  when will they/we ever learn?

Which reminds of me St Paul:  why do I do what I know I don't want to do?

Which reminds me of life.  Why do we do what we don't want/mean to do?  Why do we get sidetracked so easily?  Why do we forge ahead, unthinking, with the crowd?

All these come to mind in this run-up to the election next Tuesday.  The ads are getting louder and more obnoxious and I don't bother to answer the phone any more because I know it's just a robo-call asking for my vote.  The thing that aggravates me the most is that I get no sense that those running for office this time care about or think that what they are doing is about doing what's best for the people.  Someone who holds public office is supposed to be a servant of the people.  It's public servant, not party servant.  All I seem to be hearing about is party politics and a desire to hold power.  

I heard an story on NPR yesterday morning from Bill Adair of who is a fact checker for political advertisements in this election season.  Adair found that most of them are "barely true" and a few even elicited the rating "pants on fire."  Such as the threat that a candidate wanted to force seniors out of Medicare and into being covered by the government's health plan.  Ummm - Medicare is the government health plan for seniors.  

Do any of these candidates want to do what is right for the country?  I understand that Americans are frustrated about the economy and unemployment but where are the plans to address anything other than getting elected or throwing out the incumbents?

When will we ever learn?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Walls of Ballast

This is a house in the historic town of Bath, NC.  Many homes in this town have these low walls built out of these round stones.

They are ballast stones, put aboard ships that sailed out of the local harbor (Bath is on the Pamlico River which empties out into the Pamlico Sound which affords a route through the Outer Banks barrier islands into the Atlantic Ocean).

Bath was the home of the pirate Blackbeard as well as many other sea faring men who were not quite so famous or so colorful (or pirate-y) and there was an extensive archaeological "dig" recovering his flagship the Queen Anne's Revenge, which he may have run deliberately aground near Beaufort NC in order to allow his pirate crew to disburse before he turned himself in to the governor at Bath.  Who pardoned him.  Understandably, actually.

At any rate, ballast stones were kept in the holds of ships to keep the center of gravity low in stormy seas.  There were additional ballast stones that could be thrown overboard if necessary when sailing in shallower waters or after picking up or unloading cargo (i.e., pirate treasure).  In a town with a busy harbor, which Bath was back in the day, there would be lots of these stones lying around.  Many river/harbor towns feature buildings or fences that incorporated ballast stones in their makeup.  The stones may have come from anywhere, too, wherever the ships had been.  And then one could simply pick them up and stack them in the yard.

Rocks, common place and exotic all at once.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Now that I have even more time to hang around with people who are aging, I am noticing a few things.  Like the desire to remain independent and yet the need to have some help.

Several times lately, I have realized that people need help doing things like going to doctor's appointments and the like.  But they don't want to inconvenience anyone.  So they go by themselves.  And then they become confused about the parking lots or the big buildings or long hallways.  Which causes their blood pressure to go up or their self esteem to go down.

One especially notices the elderly couple.  They have each other, right?  But one is having a procedure, and the other needs to go get the car and bring it around to the front of the building so the patient can be put into the car by the nursing staff.  Regular protocol.  Except the driver is worried s/he can't find the car or find the way out of the parking lot or the front of the building or .... and s/he doesn't want to inconvenience the staff who might have to wait a long time.  If they could just go together and find the car themselves....?

I am so glad that my mother lives in a facility that provides transportation to all of her medical care with people who help her.  I can usually go with her if there is something special, and I simply insist that I am free to go and she is not inconveniencing me.  But I worry about a lot of the people I see, that in their desire to remain independent, they end up putting themselves through an ordeal that they really don't have to go through.

There is a huge need for elder care of all kinds in our communities.  Even couples need help, especially in these big medical centers and facilities.  And not everyone has a flexible schedule as I do.  I am grateful for the people I know who not only visit the elderly but are on call to give them rides and accompany them to the store, to church, and to their doctor's appointments.

Morning Collect

for the joy of God's creation

O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty:
open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works;
that, rejoicing in your whole creation,
we may learn to serve you with gladness;
for the sake of Him through whom all things were made,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Sometimes we extroverts appear to have some difficulty listening.  Actually, we do listen, but we don't always look like we are.  We listen with more than our ears - all our senses combine (using especially intuition, visual scanning including paying attention to body language, and nuanced auditory cues) to take in and classify/organize information.  We actively listen, nodding, asking for clarification, making noises of understanding or assent as someone talks.
Listening for God is a little different, a little more difficult.  We are not face to face with God, even if we may be face to face with one of God's people who carry God's messages; we can't use the visual cues and scan the universe in quite the same way as we can do at a party or in a one-to-one situation with someone.  Listening for God is similar, though, too, in that we are listening with the heart and probably need to take some time for further reflection after an encounter, which is true for live, in-person listening as well as spiritual listening.

I think I am about to embark on a time of particular listening and am wondering about how to do that listening.  Sometimes people go on silent retreats.  (This terrifies me.  I don't mind lots of silence but enforced silence for very long sounds like something that would make me crazy.  All you contemplative introverts can shake your heads sadly now.  But there it is.)  Some people walk the labyrinth or take long walks in the country or in the mountains or at the beach.  Some people engage in short but regular periods of silence (like centering prayer only with listening hearts turned on rather than focusing on resting in God's arms).  Some people call a spiritual friend or mentor to help talk things out/through.

Just in the same way I do with people, I like to use a combination of ways to listen for God.  Through people, through reading, through prayer, through silence, through concentrated action.  It is as if one's senses are all heightened, looking for a particular frequency into which one might tune oneself - tuning into the God channel, I guess. Being open to surprise, to revelation, to direction coming from way off-center.  Of course, this listening goes on all the time, but there are particular times in which one needs to be intentional about listening.  I believe one of those times is coming near.

How do you listen for God?  How do you know when the time has come for a particularly focused time of discernment?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Official Read a Book Day

This morning I awoke to the sound of rain lashing against the windowpanes and some slight and distant lightning.  Ah, I thought, a rainy Monday - a good day to spend with a book.  Of course I had to get up and fix my son's lunch and then go to the gym first.  Which I did.
And then, by lunchtime, the sun had come out.

But I had already gotten the idea about the book. 

So, even though it is no longer raining or even cloudy, I'm sticking with the original plan.  This afternoon will be spent with a book.  After all, it's still Monday.

Hope you are reading something good yourself.  Any suggestions/recommendations?

P.S. I'm reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Sermon about Being Like an Apostle

There is a lot going on out there in the world this week.  The chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary was destroyed by fire, as was the office of the Bishop of Northern California in Sacramento, a building which also housed the River City Food Bank.  People are dying in Haiti again, this time because of an outbreak of cholera.  Our Presiding Bishop participated in an interfaith forum on happiness over at Emory University’s Center for Law and Religion. Millions of dollars were raised for breast cancer through the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walk in Atlanta.  Political ads and commentary go on and on, important baseball games have been played, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has written a book about his life, which he apparently remembers after all.  
And of course, in here, we are celebrating our patronal feast day, wearing red clothing and using our red vestments and apparently eating red food after church - which I hope means red velvet cake - red being the color for martyrs, which St Simon may (or may not) have been.  
We really don’t know much about Simon, other than that he was an apostle, one who was faithful and zealous in his mission to make known the love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Still, we don’t really know his story.  But we are called to model ourselves after this apostle as we live out our own calling to not only be disciples - those who follow, who learn from, our teacher, Jesus - but also apostles, ones who go out into the world as messengers, ambassadors, carrying with us the gospel message of love, mercy, peace and salvation.
There are, of course, many ways to be apostles, messengers, ambassadors, evangelists.   I am particularly drawn to what St Francis of Assisi was reported to have said: “Preach the gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  We are to embody the message, we are to witness through our actions (which is where the word martyr comes from anyway - a martyr is a witness to the faith through an action, an action most of us hope not to emulate), whether or not we tell people about Jesus using words.  And our actions have to have something to do with being zealous about making love and mercy known in the community - both this community in here and that community out there in Conyers and Rockdale County and Georgia and the United States and beyond.
If you’ve been listening to or reading on our website my sermons in these last weeks, you know that I’ve been talking a lot about mission, about loving our neighbors as ourselves through outreach, through making the world a better place for all of God’s beloved people, through being a lifeline for those who are trapped in their own suffering and lack of resources of all kinds.  There are many ways to witness to the world through friendship and assistance.  With our presence and with our expertise and with our hard earned dollars put toward lessening the burdens of those who are heavily laden.  We witness by being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
You’ve also heard me say that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the need we see and become numbed or paralyzed by it.  We know that the poor will always be with us, and yet we have to remember that this was not one of Jesus’ commandments.  It’s really not easy to live out one’s faith at times.  Categories like “the poor” or “the needy” are huge and impersonal, and one finds it daunting to even imagine ways in which we might make a difference in the lives of “the poor” and “the downtrodden.”  
One of the things I did this week, in addition to reading about the Presiding Bishop’s speech and Keith Richards’ book, was to watch a video presentation on the website called “TED: Ideas Worth Spreading” by a young woman named Jessica Jackley, who founded an organization called Kiva.  Quoting their website, “Kiva’s mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty.  Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe.  By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending.”  Basically, Kiva facilitates micro loans - loans of amounts like $150 or $400 - to poor people who want to start their own businesses so that they can improve their own and their families’ lives.  A woman in Kenya may need a loan to buy a sewing machine so that she can start a business as a seamstress; a man may need a loan to buy portable kitchen equipment to start an outdoor eatery in New Orleans.  
During the eighteen-minute presentation, Ms. Jackley talked about many things, but two things seemed to have a profound impact on her decision to start Kiva.  First, was her childhood Sunday School classes, in which she learned that Jesus wants us to help the poor, that Jesus said that whatever we do for the least among us we do for Jesus himself.  And second, was her experience of hearing the stories of the people who lived in poverty but had ideas about how to lift themselves out of poverty.  
Her Christian upbringing and faith may have been the foundation, but the stories were what gave her the impetus to do something concrete.  Upon learning about the concept of micro loans - these very small loans that made a world of difference to people, particularly women, who are trying to improve their own and their families’ lives, loans that they would never be able to get from a bank or other financial institution - she became so interested in the idea of these people who had a story to tell about their dreams that she quit her job and spent three months in Africa interviewing people who were applying for micro loans.  Actually meeting them and hearing their stories about buying a loom to weave rugs, buying a goat to produce cheese, buying seeds to plant crops, starting a restaurant.
It was their stories that got her.  The stories helped her make a connection between her desire to help the poor and the poor themselves.  She didn’t just want to give money to someone, she wanted to be in relationship with someone, by hearing their story and by becoming part of their story through helping them finance their dreams of bringing themselves out of poverty.  She wanted to be part of the stories of real people.
So, what does this have to do with St Simon, or St Simon’s Episcopal Church? you may well ask.
Well, your vestry has been talking about ministry in the community, about outreach, about addressing the needs of the least of these.  They are considering some ideas and thinking about how this church community might be a player in the wider community in terms of alleviating suffering.  Some of this involves money or food or expertise.  
But at its heart, our outreach, our mission, is about relationship.  We are a people in relationship with God and with one another.  Our mission is about our proclaiming the gospel - our story - through relationship with others - by becoming part of their story and making them part of our story.  By listening to their stories and learning how we can practice love and mercy and faithful generosity among our neighbors far and near.  
St Simon the apostle didn’t sit in an office and write checks.  He walked among the people, bringing good news not only by proclamation but by loving neighbor as Jesus commanded all the apostles.  By healing the sick, befriending the lonely, lifting up the needy, visiting the imprisoned.  We want to do that, too, but sometimes we don’t know how.  We want to be generous but we don’t know whether or not we are going to be taken advantage of.
And so as this community thinks about ways to be united around mission, Jessica Jackley’s story suggests how to do that by finding ways not just to send a check or a toy or a bag of groceries (although of course those are needed things) but to look for opportunities to be in relationship with those around us.  
Many of you are already doing that through Meals on Wheels, which is a growing concern here at St Simon’s.  A number of you also visit the homebound.  These are both ways in which we are in relationship, not just delivering a product but being the hands and feet of Christ: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, befriending the lonely.  And also learning about the people we feed and bringing their needs and concerns into this room.  You have made their stories part of our story.  We are in relationship with those you visit and those you feed.
So on this feast day of St Simon the Apostle, I urge you to think about other and more ways in which you can, both individually and as a parish, be in relationship with not just “the poor” but actual poor people; how you can hear the stories of real people who are suffering and bring their stories into this room as well as bring our story of healing and love and justice and mercy into their lives.  I urge you to think about the community out there - the community both near and far - and wonder, who is poor, who is suffering, who is lonely, who is trapped, who has been abused or abandoned?  And wonder how can we be in relationship with them, how we can make a connection with them, how can we hear their stories, how can we be part of their stories, how can we bring our story to them and bring their story here to this altar?  How can we help alleviate the suffering of real people whose stories we know, through our friendship, our expertise, our time and our money?

For we are all one in Christ Jesus, near and far, strangers and aliens, apostles and prophets; those inside and those outside.  He is our peace and he has broken down the dividing walls between us, citizens all of the household of God.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Morning Canticle: Peace for the Nations

In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house
will be established as the highest of the mountains.
It will be raised above the hills:
and all the nations will flock to it.
Many peoples will come and they will say:
"Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob
that we may be taught the ways of the Lord:
and may walk in the right paths."
From the mountain of the Lord shall go forth the law:
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
The Lord will judge between the nations:
and settle disputes for many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares:
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation:
nor ever again prepare for war.
Come O house of Jacob:
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Glory to the Father and to the Son:
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now:
and shall be for ever. Amen.

(A New Zealand Prayer Book, 90)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Penelope wants you to check this out.

Because one, after all, cannot have too large a party, please check out this new blog called Muslims Wearing Things.  It was created just today in response to the Juan Williams flap and shows pictures of Muslims in every day dress, complete with wry captions.  The internet is wonderful.

Friday afternoon fountain break

Well, here it is Friday afternoon, I'm writing a sermon that I didn't write earlier in the week, and it's break time.  If I go outside, I will not come back in on this gorgeous fall day.  So here is a post about a break.

This fountain is in a courtyard outside the library at Yale.  The library that looks like a cathedral inside.  Those of you who attended Hogwarts, I mean Yale, may have seen this cute thing.  

I like all the courtyards at Hog-- I mean Yale.  They're everywhere, providing a physical relief/green space near every building or concentration of buildings.  

So enjoy this fountain scene on your Friday afternoon break and imagine you are in the beautiful northeast surrounded by fabulous colors and cool temperatures and a bright blue sky.


Thursday, October 21, 2010


One of the civil servant type jobs way long ago, when cities had walls around them, was the job of watchman or sentinel.  These were guys (and they were male guys) who stood on the walls and watched the horizon for activity that should be transmitted to the town's leadership.  Fires, storms, armies approaching, delegations from other cities, etc.  The sentinel was the first to see and was charged with making sure the news got to where it needed to go in a timely fashion.  And of course told everyone what time it was (and whether or not all was well).

I think it would be helpful to have a personal sentinel.  I guess people used to have personal secretaries or valets or whatever to attend to daily care and daily tasks that needed to be dealt with by some action (run the bath, write the letter).  Nowdays most of us feel pretty competent and can run our own baths and write our own letters.  But I think having a personal sentinel might be useful.

The sentinel of course wouldn't just sit on your front lawn and check for approaching marauders.  The job would have to be more attuned to our modern society than that.  The sentinel would be the one to scan the horizon in a more nuanced but still comprehensive way.  For example, the sentinel could let you know when your relatives are on their way for a visit, perhaps by monitoring their Facebook pages for you.  The sentinel could stave off those requests from out of the blue that are actually going to become some kind of quagmire (would you be in charge of the 25th class reunion?) or at least give you enough notice that you'd have time to conveniently plan a cruise for that same weekend.  The sentinel would stay on top of the budding church fight or school problem, take note of the comings and goings of neighbors who might be headed to the hospital or bringing home new pets and babies, notice when the flowers at the gardening center are in stock and on sale, and bring in news from the internet on whatever topics are of particular interest.  It would just be nice to have someone warn you when something is on its way toward you, for good or for ill.

Needless to say, a really good sentinel, just like the sentinels in days of old, would of course work on multiple fronts.  If in the old days one watched out for weather, armies, animals, gifts, relatives and friends, and supplies plus general oddities, then the modern sentinel would be able to be on watch on all fronts - the children, parents, work, social, religious, and whatever other fronts are part of your life.

Yep, I think I would like having a sentinel.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Looking Up

Sometimes I spend an inordinate amount of  time secondguessing myself.  This is not something I am proud of.  Most of the time, I feel that such activity is just a waste of time and energy.  It interferes with sleep and relationships (with self, others, and God).

It's one thing to be determined to learn from one's mistakes or to reflect on things, but second-guessing is a whole 'nother animal - and it's a negative one.  It makes us and others around us miserable.

I have noticed, lately, that I am not doing this so much these days.  And I am noticing, probably as a result, that I have more time, more energy, and I feel a sense of clarity most of the time. Things are looking up.  Things feel as if they are on a much more even keel.  Of course, I haven't made any big decisions lately, either, so there's always the possibility  ... oh wait, that sounds like second-guessing!

It intrigues me, though - why is it that we second-guess ourselves?  Is it a self-esteem issue?  Do we do so because we are afraid of being confident (do we have a fear of success)?  Is it a sign that we are wedded to an unhealthy perfectionism and so compulsively look for mistakes?  Do we just not believe that we have what it takes to be in relationship or conversation or in a leadership position?  Why do we analyze and overanalyze things so much?  Is it just an extreme form of what could be healthy reflection?  Is it better than no reflection at all?  What role do others play in our own second-guessing - do we do it because of what others might think or is it all internal?  What about when others validate us - does that keep us from going to the second-guessing place?

I wish I could say that all these, and many more, questions will be answered in the next paragraph, but they won't.  I'm just wondering - and being glad that I seem to be in a place where I am not in the thrall of my second-guessing self.  And hoping that the next time I go there, I'll wonder instead of getting caught.

Morning Collect for the Unemployed

Heavenly Father, we remember before you all those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work.  Guide the people of this land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lights against the Darkness

In my travels around various churches, I often see one of these stands with votive candles somewhere in the narthex or back of the nave.... a place to light candles to signify the intention to say a prayer for someone.  They come in all sizes and shapes (at the San Carlos Borromeo Mission in Carmel, California, there was a lovely display of very thin beeswax candles standing in a small tub filled with sand just off to the left of the altar rail in the nave) and there is often a spot (a slot, a basket) in which money can be placed - not as a bribe related to the prayer but an offering to defray the cost of the actual candles.  

One of the churches I have had a relationship with began opening its doors in the daytime to the public and discovering that people were coming in off the street and lighting candles.  This was, fortunately, seen as a positive thing, that the church was a place in which people came inside to pray and they left evidence of those prayers by lighting candles.

I wonder why it is that we feel the need to leave evidence of our prayers or do make a physical act out of it.  I myself light candles, and I don't think it's a silly practice at all; in fact, I believe such practices go back into time immemorial.  People leave signs.  In the Old Testament piles of stones were used as memorials to the miracles of YHWH.  (See Genesis 31:46; Joshua 4:3-20 for example.)  Graffiti is another way.  (Kilroy was here.)  We want to do something that signifies our thoughts, our feelings, our intentions, our memories.  

Even people who don't consider themselves particularly religious will, when they find themselves in a church, say on a tour or something, and they see one of these set ups, will come over and light a candle.

I believe that this practice is a way of offering a light against the darkness.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Caring about Society

The New York Times ran an interesting article called "Morals Without God?" on its "Opinionator" blog by Frans de Waal, a primatologist from Emory University about God, religion, and primates.  It is a lengthy article, which won't summarize it here, as you can read it yourself (here).  

That being said, I was very interested in what de Waal writes about how chimpanzees care about the society in which they live.  Often when both chimps and bonobos in pairs are offered rewards for behavior, for example, one will refuse to get a reward bigger than the other.  They will open a door to food when another animal is present, knowing that it means sharing instead of hoarding, but they do it anyway.

The most interesting part I read was about female chimpanzees who care for their elderly neighbors.  He writes about an older chimp named Peony who has trouble getting around.  So other younger females push her up to help her into the feeding area, and they run ahead of her to get water in their own mouths which they then squirt into hers when she starts ambling over toward the water source.  Further, female chimps will drag two fighting males toward one another to make up after a fight and they will take weapons away from males as well.

This reminds me of a story told about a nun named Sister Stella Maris, who was very tiny.  She worked at St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta when it was run by the Sisters of Mercy, and one night a big man came into the emergency room brandishing a gun.  The people at the front desk were not sure what to do and someone went back into the patient area where Sister Stella Maris was visiting patients and told her what had happened.  So tiny Sister Stella Marris marched out into the reception area, walked right up to the large man, stuck out her hand palm up in a very matter of fact way and said in a stern voice, "Give me that gun right now!"

And so he did, right away.

We're all in this together.  

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Sermon about lifelines

Text:  Luke 18:1-8

This past week, I, like many people, was mesmerized by the story of the rescue of the thirty-three miners who had been trapped a half mile underground in the San Jose copper mine in northern Chile.  I watched the rescue efforts being broadcast live online and on television.  And I stayed up past my bedtime to watch the first miner step out of the rescue pod and hug his family, rescue workers, and the president of Chile before heading off to the hospital for a checkup.
Some of the talking heads on the television coverage said that some experts were expecting the miners to be in poor health, to be psychologically damaged, possibly to even experience trauma coming up from underground.  
But for the most part, the miners were in excellent condition.  It turns out that they had organized themselves into a community that was focused on both their well-being and their continuing connection with the outside world.  They set up a lighting system to simulate night and day so their bodies would stay within normal circadian rhythms; they organized their surroundings into areas for sleeping, eating, exercise, and personal hygiene.  They assisted and supported one another whenever anyone was suffering from any kind of pain - psychological or physical.  They divided up necessary tasks according to skill so that some worked on reinforcing the walls; some dug wells to find drinking water; one who had paramedic training acted as community health worker, keeping records and administering vaccines.  Others set up the lighting arrangements and still others put in place a communication system with the outside world that included passing information about themselves out and taking in everything from love letters to medicine packets to special food and drink. They even made a pact with each other that any who in the future benefit financially from telling their story will share the proceeds with all of the miners.  They all worked together for the sake of the common good, knowing that the health of the entire community depended on the well-being of each of the community’s members.  
And as they made their plight known, the world gathered around them to assist them, to try to keep them safe and healthy, to give them a lifeline.  And this enabled the miners not only to endure being trapped underground for 68 days but to support one another in every way needed to endure the uncertainty of whether they would ever be able to be rescued while the experts above ground from several continents came together to find a way to save them all.  Together, they all found a way to keep one another from losing heart in a time of great uncertainty.
Today Jesus tells a parable about not losing heart.  It’s an odd little story, in which a vulnerable widow - someone who had no one to protect and advocate for her so that she had to do it herself - hounded an uncaring judge into giving her justice.  She kept up her cries to him even though he was not particularly interested in her welfare.  He was finally persuaded to help her because he feared that the fact that she kept on and on about her plight would be interpreted by the community as a black mark against his own reputation.  Our translation says he worried she would wear him out, but the literal translation is that he worried she would give him a black eye.  We can take this literally or figuratively, but either way, he looks bad. 
Of course this is one of those “how much more” stories we often find in the Bible:  if this jerk of a judge will do justice, how much more will our loving and benevolent God respond to God’s own people who cry out to him for justice day and night.  Remember Jesus said this parable is about the disciples’ need to pray and not to lose heart.  Crying out to God is prayer.  
And Jesus says, keep praying, and don’t lose heart.  God will hear you and will make things right.  Have faith that this will be so.  Have faith that this is so, that this is the nature of God.
And Jesus says this will come quickly, but most of our experience is that “quickly” does not often come so soon.  The Chilean miners knew this - it took more than two months to get them out.  I think Jesus knows this too - for if prayers were answered so quickly, if things were made right quickly, if justice was swift, one would not be tempted to lose heart.   God’s time is not our time, as most of us have learned.
And so we are faced with that age old problem:  how do we have faith, how do we keep the faith, how do we keep from losing heart, when we are struggling and keep on struggling with things that need to be made right.  Personal things like mental illness, chronic illness, terminal illness.  Global things like poverty and hunger.  Horrible things like war and all its parts - violence, destruction, people maimed and women assaulted and children exposed to horrors that they can never get over.  These things don’t seem to be being made right very quickly, even though we pray about them daily.
So how do we keep the faith, keep from losing heart?  Even if our ultimate destiny is heaven, what about the part that seems like hell on earth right now?  
I don’t know why there is still so much war and violence and oppression and hunger and illness.  But I do know that we are called to do our part while we wait for the fullness of God’s time.  We are called to support one another and to do our work in the world as partners with God to alleviate the suffering of others.  We are called to use our gifts and talents in ways that form and shore up the community, that bring necessities to those who are doing without, that will inspire others to join us in the effort to hear and do something about the cries of those who do not find justice.  We are called to bring whatever kind of healing we are equipped to bring to God’s children who suffer in the community, to help God in wiping away at least some tears, even as we know that only in the end will all the pain be taken away.  
Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, whom I mentioned last week, wrote in the Church Times about his thoughts, which follow the writing of St Augustine, drawing a parallel between Christianity and being rescued.  Because our salvation is not something we can do for ourselves, and so we need to be rescued.  
But we are all in it together, in our need for salvation, our need to be rescued, and it is our job to join our voices with those, like the traditional widow in First Century Palestine, who do not have others to advocate for them.  It is our job to do what we can to foster their well being while we all await the day when God wipes away every tear.  
We all may have been saved by virtue of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and we may be all equal in the sight of God, but there are still those among us now who are downtrodden and abused and hungry and outcast.  Many of them do not believe that they can be saved.  Some of them have killed themselves in recent weeks.  I don’t believe that we are supposed to ignore that fact and simply rejoice in our own salvation.  Some people are still trapped somewhere.  Once we know their plight, it is our duty to do what we can to keep them - and us - from losing heart. 
And frankly, while the world looks on as Christians are spending lots of energy publicly fighting about purity issues and splitting off from one another, we risk getting a black eye by not doing what Christians are supposed to do: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, as we vow several times a year in our baptismal covenant.  
We are all in this life together, waiting for God to make things right. And some of God’s people are trapped somewhere, some of them are giving up hope, and we are all called to be a community together with them, to lend our expertise and to share what we have with those who are crying out or worse are too numb and tired and beaten down to cry out for themselves.  They need us to give voice to their need for justice, they need us to be their lifeline.
And so, as we look forward to our feast day next week, I offer this prayer for our parish as we move into our next year:   
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace in the world.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain,
rejection, and starvation, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain to joy.
May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. 


Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Short Reflection on Heaven and Hell

This is a lovely depiction of Judgment Day (or if you are in the UK, Judgement Day) which is within the arch over the doorway on the front of the lovely French gothic revival St. Michael's (Roman Catholic) Church in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.  Most everyone notices this church from the back because it looks much more imposing and cathedral like from that side.  The front is truly lovely, though.  We noticed it because there was a wedding about to take place there, and men in kilts and ladies in elaborate hats were arriving in large black cars and gathering on the front steps as we were walking around on the main street of Enniskillen a few years ago.
On the top we have Jesus reigning over all, with (presumably) his mother Mary beside him on one side and a man (there is a banner that seems to identify him, but it is not readable in this photo).  There may be some evangelists (symbols of them at least) and maybe John the Baptist or someone else.  But at any rate, no matter who it is with Jesus there, this is highest heaven.  In the middle of the whole scene is the Archangel Michael, who obviously ought to have a prominent place in the montage since this is St Michael's church, both forming and guarding the divide between heaven and hell.

On the left, we have heaven.  Notice how nicely everyone is dressed.  Heaven is calmness itself, no?  There is nice architecture there (it appears to be either castle-y or church-y or maybe it is both).  And it is populated by both monks and queens and the more humble folk who pose with perfect piety.  They may be beseeching Christ but if so they are doing it with decorum.  And wearing soft robes.  The queen even appears to be receiving a pat on the head from another angel.  Who would not want to be part of this scene?  There's even room for more people, or perhaps there is not more room but it is simply like first class on an airline where the same size cabin houses fewer people, giving them ample legroom and leisure space.  Yes, heaven is very attractive.

And then we have hell on the right.  Why is it that people are always naked in hell?  Also, there are a lot more people in hell.  It's rather crowded.  Some are in anguish and others are just kind of there. The people are all being subdued by that fallen angel, Satan, who still has his shiny gold wings even if he too has lost his clothes.  There is another angel who seems to be Satan's backup, perhaps to help with the crowd control.  If there is architecture, it is covered up by all the bad people.  It appears, however, that there is some natural feature on the right side of the scene - a wave or something - about to overtake all of the unfortunate and underdressed folk.  Who would want to be part of this scene?

So there it is.  Obviously we want to be on the side of the soft clothes and extra legroom On That Day.


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