Easter 3, Year C, 2016

What do you do the day after?

You have mourned Jesus’ death. You have been astonished by his empty grave. Your heart almost stopped when you saw him in person in the upper room.

But now, it’s the next day. What do you do?

If you’re Peter, you go fishing. Fishing is comfortable. Fishing has a rhythm and clear expectations. In your boat you know how to act, know what to expect.

What Peter does not expect is that he is going to see Jesus again. So, when a mysterious man tells Peter and the other disciples to place their nets on the side of the boat, they do. And when the nets hang heavy with fish as they draw them back into their boats, Peter has his moment of recognition. Apparently fishing is hot work, because Peter is naked. So, Peter frantically throws his clothes on and then splashes into the water, swimming as fast as he can to get to Jesus.

Jesus and the disciples share a breakfast of broiled fish, and then Jesus pulls Peter aside.

Jesus has had been plans for Peter since their first meeting. Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon, because Peter means rock, and Jesus intends for Peter to be the rock on which the church will be built. But even after the resurrection, Peter is not quite ready. Peter thinks he can just go back to his old life, back to fishing. Jesus has other plans.

Peter has always been passionate about Jesus, but impetuous. And he’s just denied being Jesus’ follower three times. And so Jesus and Peter need to have a little conversation, a literal come-to-Jesus.

Jesus does not berate, Peter. He simply asks Peter if he loves him. Peter, ever passionate cries “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” This pattern repeats a total of three times, perhaps reversing the three fold denial of Jesus that happened previously. Each time Peter replies “You know that I love you!”, Jesus tells him to feed or tend to Jesus’ sheep.

Peter’s future is not in fishing. Peter’s future is giving God’s people spiritual food. In Matthew’s Gospel we have the Great Commission, in which Jesus tells his followers to go out into the world and spread the good news. In the Gospel of John we have this intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter. Peter is loved by Jesus, even after his denial. Peter has experienced the power of God in the resurrected Jesus. Peter has first hand understanding that Jesus loves us just as we are, but also has big plans for us.

When we encounter the Risen Christ in our own lives, whether at the moment of our baptism, an experience at the Eucharist, or an encounter with another Christian, we will never be the same again. A relationship with Christ is not just about this deep sense of being loved and forgiven, but is about being propelled forward in a life of faith.

First, I want to get at this sense of being loved and forgiven. Some of us are given a message when we are young that we are not enough, that we are unloveable. We believe that if we come before God, we are inviting his judgment and condemnation. But that is not the God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus reveals a God who is able and willing to love a hot mess like Peter who abandoned him at Jesus’ real time of need. Jesus loves Peter in the midst of his imperfection. Notice that in that conversation, Jesus calls Peter: Simon, Son of John. Each time, Jesus drives home the point that he has known Peter since he was Simon. He has loved Peter since before Simon was transformed into Peter. He knows who Peter has been, and who Peter can be.

Jesus’ desire for Peter is for him to leaving fishing behind, and take up shepherding. Not sheep, like David and Moses before him, but shepherding human beings. Jesus wants people to be cared for, to be told the life giving news of the resurrection.

And Peter does it. Peter goes on to be the rock of the Church. He becomes a mature leader who helps the early church figure out what it means to follow a resurrected Jesus. Cowardly Peter bravely stands before the Sanhedrin authorities and claims his faith openly. He is given a vision that helps him understand that Jesus’ good news is not just meant for those of Jewish descent, but is for everyone. He begins the churches in Antioch and Rome. Peter changes the world.

Let me be clear. We do not earn God’s love by going out and doing what he wants us to do. The love always comes first. Part of the experience of being beloved of God is realizing we are worth something.   Peter was probably drowning in shame by the time he encountered Jesus on that beach, but by the time his encounter with Jesus was over, he was healed and ready to do big things for God.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been in the news this week because through some reporting and a DNA test, during Holy Week he learned that the man who raised him, Gavin Welby, an alcoholic whose ability to father was spotty at best, was not actually his father. His real biological father, Anthony Montague Brown, was a co-worker of his mother’s when they both worked for Winston Churchill. Justin Welby’s past was not the past of someone you would think would end up being the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Welby has long felt a deep sense of God’s love for him. The entire Telegraph article is worth a read, but one of the most moving parts is Welby’s response to the reporter’s question about whether he had found, in God, the father he had lacked in Gavin Welby. Welby replied,

“Yes!,” … “It wasn’t part of the package I was being sold. I thought it was about forgiveness, repentance and new life, which are all very important. But finding in the midst of looking after my father that here was a Father who was perfectly dependable and utterly true and who knew me deeply and loved me much more certainly, was a surprise beyond belief, wonderful.”

Welby experienced that profound parental love of God before he was called to do big things. God loved him first, then sent him out into the world.

God sees something in each of us. He sees the artist, the leader, the communicator, the compassionate heart—whatever our special gifts are. He knows who we have been, he knows our mistakes, but he also knows our potential.

God knows that with his love, we each have the potential to bring God’s kingdom a little closer to fruition. Some of us are called to fight for justice. Some of us are called to be reconcilers. Some of us are called to be teachers of God’s story. Some of us are called to spread God’s message of hope in a sometimes bleak world. Some of us are called to be prayer warriors. We are all called to help each other along the way.

And we don’t have to have some flashy job in the Kingdom like Peter or Justin Welby. We will do our work for God in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our offices.

I’ll leave you today with two questions this week.

  1. Where in your life is God trying to show you his love for you?
  2. How is God asking you to share that love with others?

Amen.

 

 

 

Palm Sunday, Year C, 2016

The Passion narrative seems particularly resonant this year, with its scenes of crowds shouting for a sacrifice to ease their anxiety, hoping for blood to appease their anger. We see now that these kinds of crowds are not a historical relic, but part of the human condition. I know many of us are deeply anxious about the current political situation in our country, for good reason, but I do think Jesus has good, if somber news for us today.

Going back to the Palm Sunday reading, you may have noticed a few things. There are no palms for one thing. Jesus’ disciples lay their coats for Jesus, not palm branches. And no one shouts “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Instead they shout,

“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Luke is deeply interested in peace, and the particular peace that Jesus brings to a violent and oppressive world. The disciples’ words echo the words of the angels who appear to the shepherds upon Jesus’ birth.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

But, there is one key difference. The disciples do not shout “peace on earth”, they shout “peace in heaven”. Perhaps they are still hoping Jesus will exercise military power, organize the Jewish population to overthrow the Roman military rule. We think of the group of disciples here as being a joyful contrast to the bloodthirsty crowd that calls for Jesus’ death. But even these disciples, who have been following Jesus, may want blood. They are thrilled that Jesus is finally traveling to Jerusalem, that he is finally going to set straight the powers of the day.

But of course, the only blood Jesus intends to shed is his own.

After his betrayal, Jesus meets the violence of the crowds in Jerusalem not with resistance, but with a clear sense of who he is, and a deep trust in God’s providence for him. Jesus does not achieve peace by trying to make everyone happy. Jesus doesn’t hold press conferences and try to appease the Romans, the corrupt powers in Jerusalem and his ordinary followers. No, Jesus remains completely clear about his values—following God means loving God and your neighbor. He knows his Father will be with him, even as he trembles in fear in the Garden.

We don’t get to the resurrection in today’s readings yet, so I’ll leave us here, standing before our crucified Jesus. Standing before our God who was willing to face us at our violent worst, who was willing to love us through our own violence, even when violence is not what he wanted from us.

The good news is that Jesus loves us through our worst, and that he shows us a way of peace in a violent time. Peace does not mean avoiding conflict, but being true to our Christian values even if it becomes costly to us. The final promise we make in baptism is to: Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This means respecting the dignity of people of every religion, every race, every nation and every political party.

The Bishops of the Episcopal Church recently met and released the following statement:

We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

Our bishops know we are sinners and we are saints. We have the capacity for violence and the capacity for reconciliation. Developing a spirit of reconciliation is hard, hard work. Picking a side and the demonizing every person who disagrees with us is much easier, but we are the light of the world, we are the body of Christ. And like Christ, we are called to be out in the world actually encountering and relating to people who are different from us. Jesus was in conversation with Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and Romans. Jesus spoke with outsiders and insiders. The early church was a hodgepodge of Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, those in power and those out of power.

We can be clear about our values while still treating people who think differently than we do with dignity. We can disagree about policy related to immigration or ISIS while agreeing to be friends. But our promise to treat each person with dignity, and Christ’s overwhelming love for all humankind makes it impossible for us to embrace racism, hatred of the refugee, and hatred of Muslims.

Following God is costly. Jesus was willing to lose everything—power, privilege, even his life. Are we willing to follow?

Lent 4, Year C, 2016

When I was in high school and college, teachers loved group projects. Maybe that has always been the case and is still the case, but in the late 90s, the group project reigned. Group projects, I suppose, are designed to help a person learn to play nicely, to function well on a team. But as every tightly wound over functioning person knows, group projects are the WORST. In group projects everyone gets the same grade, whether one person does all the work or whether the work is evenly shared. You can be a member of a group project and do nothing but snap your gum and you can still succeed! Where is the justice?

I hate to break it to you other over-functioning types, but today’s Gospel is not going to make you feel much better. Well, it won’t at first. But hang in there, because this Gospel contains grace for all of us, whether we think we have it all together or whether we don’t.

Today’s Gospel is a family parable. We have a father and two sons. His eldest is a hard working, responsible typical first born. His younger son? Let’s just say he’s still “finding himself”. In a move that must have infuriated his older brother, the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance—while his father is still alive—and then goes and blows it all on fast cars, whiskey and women. Soon he is broke and working a terrible job as a pig feeder. The moment he realizes he would be grateful sharing the pigs’ food he “comes to himself”. He remembers who he is. He wakes up. And he goes home.

He prepares a whole speech, but before he can open his mouth, his father runs to him with open arms. Not only is this young man welcomed home, but his father throws him a huge party. His brother, though, is not happy. While the younger son has been out partying, who has held down the fort? Who has consoled their father? Who has done extra work? The first born. He just cannot understand his father’s forgiveness. His father assures him that “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but we are left not knowing if he ever comes around to accepting his father’s love and letting go of resentment.

Jesus told this story to some Pharisees who were NOT happy with the company Jesus was keeping. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and sinners when he could be spending time with the rule followers. This prodigal son parable is the third one Jesus tells the Pharisees in response to their grumbling. The other parables are about a lost sheep and a lost coin. To Jesus, this prodigal son is also lost. And Jesus’ job was to find all the lost people and tell them how much God loves them.

And let’s be honest, the prodigal son is not any more lost than the first born son. Because the first born son thinks all his hard work and responsible behavior is what makes him a worthwhile person. He believes that love can be earned.

At the WomanKind conference at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond last weekend, Nadia Bolz-Weber was the keynote speaker. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, but if you saw her on the street you would not guess that about her. She is 6’ 1”, has short spiky hair, wears combat boots, and is covered in tattoos. On one arm is a huge Mary Magdalene and on the other is Jesus. Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict, and once made a living as a stand up comic. So, not your typical pastor. She pastors a church in Denver called Sinners and All Saints that was designed for people on the margins, but now attracts a wide variety of followers.

One reason Bolz-Weber has been so popular, besides the fact that she curses like a sailor, is that she seems to truly, deeply understand the concept of grace. She was lost and she was found, and she continues to have a deep understanding of what it means to be found by God.

During her session at WomanKind, she talked about how all of us have an ideal version of ourselves. My ideal self, for example, goes to the gym three times a week and does yoga the other days. She reads poetry for fun and definitely does not snap, “Get your bottom in the car seat!” every single morning. My ideal self has a tidy house, eats quinoa, and drinks green tea. She does not have a problem with sugar.

There is a part of my brain that thinks I’ll get there some day. Like, if I just tried hard enough, I would get my act together. But Bolz-Weber reminded us that this ideal version of ourself? IT DOES NOT EXIST. It is a fictional person. The actual self? The sloppy, chocolate eating, Entertainment Weekly reading self? That is my real self. That is the self that God loves. Bolz-Weber says the Lutherans understand the gap—the gap between the real self and the ideal self as the Law. And the Gospel is the answer to that gap. Jesus came to live in a human body because he loved actual humans and he wanted to redeem the actual human experience. Jesus does not love our ideal selves because our ideal selves do not exist.

Even the most responsible of us have this ideal self. And I think this understanding of the gap between our real self and our ideal self helps us understand God’s grace better. We may not all have spectacular moments of failure like the prodigal son, but that does not mean we do not need grace. Because none of us is perfectly comfortable in our own skin. We all think there is something else we need to be doing to be worthy of full love and acceptance. We all are striving to meet these ideals, to hit some external mark of success. In an interview with Commonweal, Bolz-Weber says,

“Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us.[1]

But the law won’t save us. We’ll either be in the position of the prodigal son—who completely fails to live up to expectations and feels deep shame, or we’ll be in the position of the first born son—who is so blinded by pride he cannot allow himself to experience the love of his father.

And I’m not just talking about religious law here. We delude ourselves into living under all kinds of systems of law—if we eat nothing but local food and drive a Prius we’ll be saved, if we make more money than our parents we’ll be saved, if we believe exactly the right conservative or liberal principles we’ll be saved, if our bodies look thin or strong enough we’ll be saved. All these systems lie to us.

Jesus did not come to earth just for the sinners and tax collectors. He came for everyone, Pharisees and Prius owners included. Jesus is the prodigal father, with his arms outstretched, delighted his son has returned. Jesus is the prodigal father, who would be just as delighted to celebrate his first born son.

Jesus chooses to love us, our actual messy imperfect selves. He chooses to love you. Right now. Not because you deserve it, not because you have your act together, but because his Father created you and his Father loves his creations.

You are loved by God whether you are rich or broke, responsible or a “failure”, whether the people in your life are kind to you or if they are awful, whether you complete your checklist every day or never get out of bed.

If you were a coin that went missing, Jesus would turn over every floorboard in this church to find you. If you were a sheep that wandered off, Jesus would hunt you down, throw you over his shoulders and carry you back home. If you were his son and you spit in his face and ran away from home, Jesus would run down the road to meet you on your way back.

So, we can let go. Let go of that ideal self. Get to know your actual self. And get to know the God that loves you.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/we-all-think-law-will-save-us

Lent 2, Year C, 2016

About a year ago in Kirklea, we heard a commotion out the window. I looked out the window and saw two foxes running as fast as they could across the lawn. I ran downstairs to get a better look and Jordan, shouted, “Did you see those dogs?” I scoffed and told him they were definitely foxes. I might have said something snotty about him being a city person. He looked at my quizzically and said, “But they were white and brown!” Sure enough, just then I saw two hound dogs running as fast as they could, clearly on the hunt for those foxes.

That will teach me to judge someone else’s experience!

We are quite fond of our little foxes at Kirklea. I haven’t seen them since that chase, but for a couple of years, we would see the mother walking across the lawn, looking for something to eat. The little kits would peek their heads out of the bamboo that has since been smothered by kudzu, as if they were saying goodbye to us at the end of a long day.

As any of you who own chickens know, though, foxes aren’t actually adorable. Foxes are cunning and tricky and vicious. Foxes will adapt to whatever situation they are living in. Foxes will figure out how to penetrate weak spots in any defense you erect. Foxes are the hunted, but they are also the hunters.

Herod was a fox, or at least Jesus thought so. Herod was tetrarch, he was the man on the throne, but he was also vulnerable. He was not in the line of David, and his behavior was atrocious. John the Baptist had gone after Herod hard for marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist had humiliated Herod in front of hundreds of people. So, Herod, like the crafty, threatened fox he was, had John the Baptist imprisoned and killed. But Herod also represents leadership in Jerusalem who had betrayed their people. They are the foxes in the hen houses of God’s people. Instead of looking after God’s people and teaching them about God’s ways, Herod is a leader interested in only his self-interest. He is part of a corrupt system.

If John the Baptist made Herod angry, Jesus made him terrified. Herod must have felt like he was dealing with a holy game of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as he takes care of John, this Jesus pops up in Herod’s place. Jesus has not been going after Herod directly, like John the Baptist did, but he has been going from town to town teaching people about God and doing miracles. Jesus is a huge threat to Herod.  What if Jesus starts a revolution? What if Jesus tries to overthrow Herod?

So, when some Pharisees hear that Herod is coming after Jesus, they warn him. Maybe they are being compassionate. Maybe they just want Jesus to get out of town. But Jesus knows who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus, once again completely cool and collected checks his day planner: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

Jesus is completely unmoved by the threat of the fox. Does Jesus see himself like a bloodhound, able to chase down the threat of a fox? Does he see himself as a hunter, ready to put a knife into the fox?

No, Jesus sees himself as a chicken. A chicken! And not even a brash rooster. He sees himself as a gentle, motherly hen.

Jesus longs to reach out his wings and embrace all the children of Jerusalem. He wants to gather in his people and share God’s love with them. Jesus wants to be the uncorrupted leader they deserve.

Oh, Jerusalem. It is no mistake that in the Gospel of Luke, the whole structure of the book leads up to Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been the hope of the Jewish people since the time of King David. Through Solomon’s time building the temple, through kings good and bad, through exile after exile, through return and rebuilding, Jerusalem has represented the hopes of God’s people. But Jerusalem also holds dangers, especially for prophets. When a prophet speaks God’s truth, he puts himself at risk, especially in a corrupted Jerusalem.

When the Pharisees warn Jesus, Jesus has not yet traveled to Jerusalem. But, he knows Jerusalem is in his future. He hopes it will greet him with “Blessed is the one in the name of the Lord!”, but he also knows that Jerusalem may be too corrupt to hear him. Jesus says, “Your house is left to you.” Jerusalem may no longer be God’s house if its citizens cannot accept Jesus. Jerusalem may lose its status if they align themselves with Herod instead of with Jesus.

The people of Jerusalem are left with a choice. Will they be fox people or hen people? Do they trust in the wily machinations of power or do they trust in the expansive, mothering love of God?

We are given the same choice. There are plenty of people who offer us a God who would be a stranger to Jesus. Whether it is televangelists promising healing in exchange for cash, candidates twisting scripture to use it for their own ends, or clergy using power to abuse God’s people, there are still foxes in God’s hen house.

Choosing the hen’s path can seem foolish. After all, hens are incredibly vulnerable. Hens couldn’t be lower in the evolutionary pecking order.

But there’s a catch—a huge catch—while a hen may seem incredibly vulnerable when in the same cage with a fox, our hen has the power of God behind him. This wily fox Herod is just no match for Jesus. For when Herod finally catches Jesus and does exactly what a fox does with a hen, just when it seems that the foxes of the world always win, God resurrects Jesus and changes all the rules.

We worship a God who creates a way for hen values: compassion, vulnerability, life to overpower fox values: power, greed, death. In our life with God, we will find that he will deepen those hen parts of our personality while he heals us of the fox parts of our personality. He will help us be brave and show our imperfect, vulnerable selves to the world. We will be shocked at how showing our true, open, loving selves will bring real healing in the world. God does not give us the kind of weapons we think we might need to get his work done in the world. He doesn’t give us bludgeons or swords, he gives us patience and hope and joy. These tools seem so impractical! You can’t even put them in a spreadsheet! They can’t be quantified.

But these tools are incredibly powerful. If you are an unrepentant church nerd, you might know that Lent madness started this week—the Episcopal Church’s ridiculous battle of saint versus saint as they “compete” for the Golden Halo. Think March Madness brackets but with St. Joseph, Christina Rossetti, and Absalom Jones instead of Georgetown and UNC. What makes each of these saints, saints was there ability to share their true, vulnerable selves with the world. Joseph put aside his respectability to father Jesus. Christina Rossetti bared her poet’s soul to the world and gave us gifts of words that have inspired generations. Absalom Jones risked hatred and violence to become the first African American Episcopal Priest.

It takes true courage to risk showing your hen self to the world. This Lent, I challenge you to take a risk when you interact with the people in your life and show them your true self. Show God your true self. You won’t regret it.

Epiphany 4, 2016

If I were staging a modern day version of the scene we get in last week and this week’s Gospel lectionary, this is how it would go:

You are in small, dusty town, when all of a sudden you hear a loud base beat. As you look into the distance you see someone driving slowly in a convertible, one hand on the wheel. The car pulls up to the synagogue, Jesus cool as a cucumber, steps out of the car, pulls off his sunglasses, and looks slowly around his hometown. He calmly ascends the synagogue steps, unrolls a scroll of Scripture, reads it and then says those famous words that start, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. . .” When he finishes, he would drop his mic. Or the scroll, or something. The point is, it would be very cool, you guys. In modern parlance, the Jesus in this scene is very baller.

Jesus is super confident and the crowds love it! They love that this hometown boy, Joseph’s son, has gone on to do such amazing things.

Well, they love what he says until he reports that he will be doing no miracles in his hometown. Now, in the text, they don’t ask him to do miracles. He just announces he won’t do any. And then he announces that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. And then, as if to make that prophecy come true, Jesus starts throwing some serious shade.

One would think that Jesus’ friends and relatives in Nazareth would be at the heart of the gospel message. After all, wouldn’t Jesus want to share the good news and do miracles, for the people he loved the most?

Instead, Jesus tells the crowd two stories. He reminds them that Elijah did not help every person who was suffering from the famine, only a widow in Sidon. And Elisha did not help every leper, only Namaan, the Syrian.

Both the widow and Namaan are outsiders. If she is a poor widow, it means she had no family willing to take her in. And Namaan was a Syrian! He was of a different nationality. He was not part of the in crowd.

Now, this is old news to us. Jesus loves outsiders, we get it. But for those of you who were at Sunday School today, you’ll have learned that just a few hundred years before Jesus, prophets were telling the Jewish people not to marry outside of their faith, and even to expel non-Jews from Jerusalem. The prophets were concerned that non-Jews were introducing false gods and tempting Jews to worship them. They thought being insular might be a good solution. Now, we know this was not true for all of Jewish history. As Professor Adams taught us, Israel and Judah were always porous, always living amongst other nations. But, in the latter part of the New Testament, this exclusion of the other was definitely a part of the culture.

So, the good old citizens of Nazareth are deeply insulted that Jesus would rather spread his gifts around outsiders than his own community! They are so mad, they try to force him off a cliff!

Jesus, cool as ever, just walks through the crowd and on to Capernaum where he teaches and exorcises a demon.

In the Gospel of Luke, the attention and energy of God is always with those on the margins. Jesus seems to always be with the unexpected—the tax collector, the woman with a shady past, lepers, the ill. And of course, after Jesus’ death the early church went through the exciting and painful realization that Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the joy of Christian community was for everyone—including those who were not Jewish.

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel really challenges us who in some ways are in the position of the good people of Nazareth. We are the respectable ones now, with a long tradition of following God. We Episcopalians are so proud of our apostolic tradition, in which we can trace our Bishops all the way back to Peter.

What would it look like for us to keep our eyes open for where God is working in the margins?

Have you heard of the Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards? I have no idea what his religious background is, but he is a environmental engineering professor. A decade ago, he uncovered contaminated water in Washington DC and fought the CDC for years until they acknowledged that yes, the city’s pipes were deteriorating and DC residents were being poisoned by the water. Well, a resident of Flint, Michigan named Leanne Walters read about him, contacted him and mailed him samples of the local water to test. She had previously sent samples to the EPA, which claimed the water was safe. The local government also repeatedly told residents the water was safe to drink. But these residents could observe their children’s hair falling out and knew things were not right. It was professor Edwards’ who discovered that the levels of lead in Flint, Michigan were shockingly high. One glass of the water was enough to poison a child and children had been drinking the water for two years. Now, at this point, professor Edwards, who had already been financially strapped and slandered by many during his years long fight with Washington, DC officials could have let the people of Flint handle the rest of the fight on their own. The Washington Post reports that he shared his findings with the EPA, who ignored him. He then pulled a team at VA Tech together who filed Freedom of Information Act requests to prove that the local governments and EPA knew about the conditions of the water in Flint. He has gone through $150,000 of his research and personal funds to fight for the people of Flint, Michigan.

His courage motivated Dr. Mona Hatta-Attis, a Michigan pediatrician and daughter of Iraqi immigrants, to start testing her patients. The levels of lead she found in her patients had doubled and even tripled since the source of the water had been changed. She continued to press this point, even after local city officials and media accused her of being hysterical. Dr. Edwards had an ally inside the EPA, as well, Miguel Del Toral, who released internal memos a year ago arguing the water of Flint was unsafe. His boss suppressed his findings. Working together, these four people–fought and fought and fought until public attention was brought to the problem.

Dr. Edwards so won the trust of the people of Flint that they insisted he be in charge of restoring their water systems He agreed.

I think Ms. Walters, Dr. Edwards, Dr. Hatta-Attis and Mr. Del Toral are living examples of what it means to be in the world like Jesus was in the world. In their case, the outsiders they cared about were the children of Flint, Michigan.  They stayed calm under pressure and continue to speak their truths even when faced with enormous opposition. They knew that these children, who have no money, no prestige, no power were important enough to protect.

Now, not very many of us are going to ever be in the position to be a hero under these kind of circumstances. But fifty of you, FIFTY, participated in some way in our PACEM ministry to homeless women this week. Fifty of you donated your resources or time or presence to give women a nurturing environment instead of a cold night on the streets.

And each of us has the opportunity in our daily lives to listen to the stories of people who are different than we are. We have the ability to grow in our understanding of what life is like for people beyond Albemarle County, or what life is like in the corners of our county that don’t usually get attention. We have the ability to reach out and make connections with people in our neighborhoods and offices and classrooms. When we follow Jesus, we never know where we will land! May God give us the privilege of joining him on the margins and seeing him at work. Amen.

To donate to the Flint Water Study or for clean water for Flint residents, go here.

 

Advent 1, Year C, 2015

In Madeleine L’Engle’s great novel A Wrinkle in Time, Meg an ordinary daughter of two scientists, is propelled on a hero’s journey. Meg’s father, who has discovered a form of travel through space and time known as a tesseract, has become imprisoned on another planet.

Meg meets a mysterious woman, Mrs. Whatsit, who, with her friends Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, leads her through space and time to various planets before they begin the hard work of rescuing her father. Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace and a friend, Calvin go along for the ride.

In the fourth chapter of the book they glimpse a shadow covering the planet on which her father is trapped. L’Engle writes

It was a shadow, nothing but a shadow. It was not even as tangible as a cloud. Was it cast by something? Or was it a Thing in itself?…What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort?

This terrifying image has stayed with me the last few weeks, as I worry about the violence that has overshadowed our country and the world the last few weeks. But this image also is evoked by the apocalyptic images of Advent found in the Gospels.

The Gospel writer Mark was convinced that the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was an apocalyptic sign—a revelation that Jesus’ return was imminent. But years have passed and Jesus hasn’t returned, so Luke is recasting the expectation for first-Generation Christians. Yes, Jesus will come back, and there will be signs leading up to his return, but we cannot know when that will be.

We are in the middle of the story, and we don’t know when it will end.

Jesus has died and been resurrected. As the biblical scholar David Lose puts it, “We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death . . . and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven.”[1]

Being in the middle of the story means we still have to face dark clouds. We still have to wait for a time when there will no longer be violence, no longer be suffering, no longer be tears.

So, how should we wait? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers,

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

We are to stay alert, but not panic.

That is not so easy, is it?

Over and over again, when Angels bring the good news of Jesus’ birth to human beings they introduce themselves by saying, “Fear not!” We are fearful people. We fear violence. We fear change. We fear the other. We fear not having enough. We fear not being in power. When we are afraid we can lash out, overreact, panic.

The other extreme is to bury our head in the sand. If we just detach from whatever is troubling us, then we can avoid the fear. We play make-believe and only engage with what makes us feel better.

But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus suggests a third way. Jesus says “Be on guard” and “Be alert”.

Followers of Jesus need not lash out in fear or retreat in denial. Our job is to stand up, be alert and to live out our Christian vocation, those promises we made in our baptism.

To return to A Wrinkle in Time, a point comes where Meg and her friends are given the call to stand up, to be alert and to live out their vocation. We pick up in Chapter 5.

Mrs. Which’s voice reverberated through the cave. “Therre will nno llonggerr bee sso many pplleasanntt thinggss too llookk att iff rressponssible ppeoplle ddo nnott ddoo ssomethingg abboutt thee unnppleasanntt oness.”. .

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.

“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”

“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”

“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”

“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”

L’Engle recognizes the many, many ways human beings can live out their vocations as light-bearers of the world, whether they are Christian or not. L’Engle was famously an Episcopalian, so she would have read our baptismal vows every time there was a baptism at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where she worshiped in New York City. And she knew that whether you had a vocation to ordained life, or making art, or being a scientist, or any thing else, really, you have the power to spread Christ’s light in the darkness.

I think of the mom in California who is collecting and sending baby carriers to refugee parents in Greece and the volunteers who are traveling to Greece to distribute and fit the carriers. I think of Sarah Staudt, the daughter of a Virginia Theological Seminary professor. She is now a lawyer who represents young people of color in the Chicago courts. I think of my former neighbor Sam Greenlee, who picks up Syrian refugees from the airport in Sacramento and drives them to their new lives. He writes their stories in Facebook posts so that we might be reminded of their humanity. I think of each of you who are teachers and nurses and doctors and social workers and painters and musicians. I think of you who use your wealth to bring beauty and education into the world. I think of each of you who prays for our world, who writes letters to our legislators, who teach your children the way of peace.

The dark cloud can seem so overwhelming, but we are not powerless. The light of Christ empowers each of us to do our part to illuminate the darkness. And so we stay alert, we keep our heads up and we dot he work of Christ while we await his return.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=480

All Saints, Year B, 2015

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That’s what the Gospel of John tells us right after Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ death. This family is special to Jesus. So special that Jesus stays with them in Bethany when he travels to Jerusalem to face his death. If you map out that final week or so of his life, you see him walking back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem, over and over. They gave Jesus the comfort he needed to face the most difficult time in his life. So, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are not anonymous people that are part of a crowd who follow Jesus. They aren’t even the disciples. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends, his tribe. Mary anoints Jesus. She is the only person in his life who seems to truly understand that death is in his future. In the Gospel of Luke we experience Mary and Martha as bickering sisters, but in the Gospel of John we see them both as women of faith, beloved of Jesus.

So, when their brother Lazarus dies, and Jesus does not come right away to heal him, both the sisters are understandably devastated. They have sent word to Jesus, Jesus could have come, but he doesn’t. Jesus has healed hundreds of other people’s brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but he won’t come to Bethany to heal one of his closest friends?

One of the most painful experiences after the death of a loved one can be this sense that God has abandoned you and your loved one. That, if God really saw your pain, heard your prayers, loved you, then God would heal the people you love. This pain and sense of loss can even mutate into a belief that God chose death for your loved one, chose suffering for you. We can come to believe that God is capricious and malevolent, or that you are somehow not holy enough to be worth his attention.

One of the great gifts of this story is that Mary and Martha ask our question to Jesus. Because they are two different people, in two different emotional spaces, Jesus answers them individually. When Jesus first arrives on the scene Martha runs up to him and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus then goes on to have a theological conversation with her. He explains to her that he is the resurrection and life, that he is the Messiah that has power even over death. When she and Jesus get to the house, he encounters Mary, who is still weeping. She also says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus doesn’t give her a theological lecture. For a moment, he stops being the teacher, and simply weeps alongside of her.

This is our Jesus. He is both the power over death and the one who weeps alongside us.

There was a time when theologians understood God as impassable, so this moment when Jesus weeps alongside Mary was a real puzzler for them. Jesus must have been weeping as some kind of a show, to make a point, because if Jesus was God than Jesus could not be affected by deeper human emotions. But for all those of you who have been following along with us in the Old Testament, you’ll have noticed that God, as expressed by the Hebrew Scriptures, is the opposite of impassable. He is deeply connected to human beings. He loves them and is frustrated by them. And throughout the Gospels we have experienced Jesus as deeply moved by the humans around him and their suffering. He moves toward people, does not keep distance from them. So, Jesus’ tears seem completely in line with the God we are getting to know. A God who made us, but also identifies with us. A God who weeps with us when we face the limitations of our bodies, and makes a way for us beyond our bodies’ finitude.

Our bodies are part of Creation. And creation is by definition finite and imperfect. Only the Creator is eternal and perfect. Every human being dies. Ideally, we would all die peacefully in our sleep when we felt like we have wrung every drop out of the life we have been given. But because our bodies are created and imperfect, we can die young from any number of diseases, accidents, or acts of violence. These deaths are not God’s judgment on us as individuals; they are just what it means to be part of a broken Creation.

God does not always intervene in our illnesses and accidents, but that does not mean God has abandoned us. God has already proclaimed his love for us and our liberation from death through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our ally not only in mourning the death of his friend, but in actually experiencing death. He engages with us on the deepest possible level, facing our fears head on and experiencing the very worst our lives can offer.

But his Father, our Creator, does not leave Jesus to face the consequences of death. Instead he pulls Jesus from the depths of death into the fullness of life again. And in that moment he offers all of us the same eternal life. You do not need to wonder if God has abandoned you, because God has already done everything he needs to do to ensure you and God and all the Saints that have come before us and will come after us will have eternal life together.

When Jesus chooses to resurrect Lazarus he is demonstrating the radical power of God over death. He is giving his close friends a front row seat to God’s new plan for humanity. No longer will we be limited by the imperfections of creation. No longer will we be banished for our sin. Jesus is making a way for Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be his friends eternally. Jesus is making a way for all of us to be united with God forever.

Wherever you are in relationship to your own mortality or the death of someone you have loved, know this: Jesus is with you, not against you. Jesus is alongside you as you grieve and Jesus is at work preparing a place for you and the ones you love in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus loved ordinary saints like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Jesus loves ordinary saints like us.

On All Saints day we celebrate this reality as we give thanks for all the Saints that have gone before us. We lift up their names in gratitude and in the deep joy that they are now living their resurrected lives alongside Lazarus.

Thanks Be to God.

Amen.

Proper 17, Year B, 2015

Jesus and his disciples are SO RUDE, you guys.

They are eating lunch without having washed their hands!

The Pharisees are outraged! There is a long standing tradition of ceremonially washing hands before a meal. Jesus is letting his disciples flout that rule. This kind of carelessness and disrespect drives the Pharisees crazy. How can someone who claims to be speaking God’s word be so thoughtless and rude??? The hand washing convention was based on Biblical principles about priests purifying their hands before entering the Temple. And as modern people with an understanding of germ theory, washing hands before eating just makes sense! The Pharisees’ upset is completely logical.

I prefer stories where I see myself clearly on team Jesus. Unfortunately, I know deep in my heart that I have more than a little Pharisee in me.

We, as Episcopalians, get the Pharisees’ point of view. We really, really like our ceremonies! We want things to be done the proper way with respect and decorum. Whenever I visit my husband’s Presbyterian church, Matt always teases me afterward, “Did you even feel like you were in church?” He knows that I love the Episcopal tradition, the liturgy, the vestments, the shiny chalices and patens. Our way of doing things is what feels like church to me.

But then we get to this Sunday, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost and Jesus calls us to account.

He reminds us that none of our ceremonies really matter if what is in our heart is vile.

He uses the Pharisees’ upset to make a larger point. Not only does the hand washing not matter to Jesus, but Jesus also believes that the food we eat cannot defile us, which flew against not only convention, but also Biblical law. Jesus tells the crowd that nothing outside them can defile them. But what comes out from within them can.

For the first thirty seconds of us reading this passage we think this is good news for us! We can eat whatever we want! We don’t have to obsess about Levitical law!

But then Jesus gets really specific about the sort of things that defile us. For awhile we are okay—most of us can avoid murder and theft, and according to the latest polls at least half of us avoid adultery. But, by the time Jesus is done with his list all of us are convicted. Who can spend a life time avoiding envy or pride? All of us are guilty. All of us are defiled.

We can get dressed in perfectly appropriate clothes, arrive to church ten minutes early, pray quietly and yet the moment we look at another parishioner with disdain, we become defiled. Eric and I can do an absolutely perfect liturgy with no misspoken words or clumsy accidents, and yet the moment I covet a pair of shoes one of you is wearing, I am defiled. This idea that we create our own alienation from God is incredibly disheartening. We live in a cycle that we cannot break. Our situation appears hopeless.

Have heart! Jesus is not going to leave us in our pools of self loathing!

Jesus knows exactly how our minds and souls work. Jesus calls us to account, but Jesus also saves us from ourselves.

We start(ed) a year of studying the Bible at 9:30 this morning. In our time together, we’ll be reminded that from the beginning of time God has loved us and done everything in his power to be in relationship with us. He tried direct relationship, starting over with new humans, forming an intentional community, giving us the law, giving us kings and prophets and nothing solved our fundamental, human problem. That we, despite our best efforts, always screw things up. Even the best of us are not perfect.

At the risk of spoiling the outcome of our year of studying the bible together, God finally alights on a solution—and so he becomes a human being, taking on all of our humanity, but none of our sin. He teaches us and heals us, and then he is sacrificed on our behalf.

And he does all this not because he is fed up with us and thinks we are hopeless, but because he loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. He wants to liberate us from the powers of evil and sin that trap us under their weight. He wants to help us do better, to be a more loving, healthy, peaceful community.

We are not cured of sin, of course. I will still covet your shoes, you will still judge what your neighbor is wearing, but now we can ask forgiveness for our small mindedness and ask the Holy Spirit to help us be more generous and content. We don’t have to get mired down in self-loathing because Jesus has already forgiven us and restored our relationship with God. We can shake off our sin and get on with the work God has given us to do—to love him and to love each other.

During our parish picnic today, you will notice quite a few people wearing name tags that say, “Ask Me about (blank)”. If you have been wanting to get more deeply involved in loving God and your neighbor through one of our many ministries, they will be happy to help you figure out how you can serve. There are so many ways to take care of each other and our neighbors in this congregation, formally and informally. I highly recommend this work to you—whether it is international mission, singing in the choir, deepening your understanding of God through a Bible Study, serving in our food pantry, preparing our altar, or caring for our homebound parishioners. This work will deepen your understanding of humanity and of our loving God.

So, please, seek out these volunteers and ask them your questions.

Let’s get to work!

Amen.

Easter 7, Year B, 2015

In November of last year, the advice columnist known as “Dear Prudence” received a heartbreaking letter. A twenty five year old woman wrote in to ask advice about what she should do about a gift her dying mother had given her ten years earlier. Her mother, sick with cancer, wrote her daughter a beautiful letter for every adult occasion in her life she could imagine—graduation, wedding, birth of her children. The mother intended these as an opportunity for her daughter to know how loved she was, but now that the daughter was an adult, these letters hung over her head and made it difficult for her to get closure over her mother’s death. She wanted to know what Prudence thought she should do—read all the letters now and get them over with, or honor her mother’s wishes and open them one by one.

Adult parent child relationship are complicated, aren’t they? This young woman’s mother never intended for the letters to upset her, and Prudence assured the young woman that her mother would just want her to be happy, whether that meant reading the letters or putting them away indefinitely.

Whether a parent is dying or just sending a young adult child off into the world, the parent has to wrestle with what it means to care for and direct this person while still giving him or her the independence to make their own choices and mistakes. We live in an age in which parents are so involved with their children they have a hard time letting go. My college professor friends all have stories of parents calling to argue about a grade their 19 or 20 year old got on a paper. Sending a child out into the world is really, really hard. Learning to let go is even harder.

Over the last few Sundays, we have been reading parts of what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. In the Gospel of John, before Jesus is killed in Jerusalem, he spends three chapters telling his disciples everything he wants them to know before he dies. All the things we’ve been preaching about the last few weeks—the images of the vine and branches, abiding, keeping the commandments—all of these are from this long speech Jesus makes. He also prepares them for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He wants them to know everything they need to live life as followers of God after he is no longer with them.

Yet, Jesus knows that he could talk his disciples ears off and it still would not prepare them adequately for what is about to come. He loves them and he is genuinely concerned about them, but he knows he cannot control them.

So Jesus prays. Today’s reading is the prayer Jesus prays immediately after his farewell discourse.

He has poured every ounce of love and wisdom into his disciples that he can, but now he turns to the source of all that love and wisdom. We get to eavesdrop on this incredibly tender and intimate prayer. Jesus acknowledges that every word he had to give his followers belongs to God. And even these beloved disciples belong to God. He then says “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

Isn’t that tender? Jesus knows his followers have been changed by being around him. They are no longer aligned with the values of the world. They have become Jesus people, more concerned about loving God and neighbor than following the rules. Jesus knows that this transformation puts them at real risk. Jesus knows that people will hate them for it. Jesus knows that the evil spiritual forces in the world will do their best to take back these men and women from God. He does not pray that his disciples will have radical success and change the world. He does not pray that they would glorify his name and make him the most popular God in the land. He prays for their protection. He has come to really love these people. He does not want to leave them. He worries what will happen to them after he’s gone.

We are in the season of graduations and I think of all the men and women saying similar prayers for their children. Hoping their children will retain their integrity and sense of selves as they go off to college or work or the military. Hoping their children will be kept safe physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. Hoping they will choose career paths that will lead to lives of integrity. Hoping they will find romantic partners that will treasure and honor them.

There is something so poignant to me that even Jesus, God incarnate, faced the same limits of control that we do. Even he could not guarantee that the people he loved would be safe and secure. Even he, at the end of the day, had to turn to God and pray for God’s intervention in the life of his beloved friends.

This is part of the finitude of being human. We cannot control the people we love. Even when they are still in our homes! No matter how clearly we see the choices our family or friends should make we cannot force them to make those choices. All we can do is share our best wisdom, set appropriate boundaries, and pray.

But those prayers we pray are not just the last result of anxious people! Jesus wasn’t praying to his Father just to blow off some steam. Jesus trusted his Father completely. He knew that his Father loved the disciples as much as Jesus did. He also knew that the Father was preparing to send the Holy Spirit, as a comfort and advocate for God’s people.

We live in an uncertain world. The people we love will make bad choices and will have bad things happen to them. But they are never alone and we are never alone. God loves us and is with us no matter what happens in our lives. And he is with the people we love.

The young woman who wrote to Dear Prudence had lost her mother, but she was surrounded by love. She described a doting father, caring siblings, and referred to her own upcoming wedding. Her mother faced her own finitude, but other people were able to carry out the holy work of loving this young woman.

And that’s the other piece of this puzzle, isn’t it? Because God uses us, the Body of Christ, to love one another and help one another now that Jesus has ascended. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to take care of each other and love people who aren’t even in our family.

The online community Togetherrising, which is a group of people moved by the writings of Glennon Melton, had their annual Love Flash Mob this week. Glennon had her readers nominate the people they see who are heroes in their community and Togetherrising raised $250,000 from her readers to make these heroes’ dreams come true. My favorite story so far is the story of a nine year old girl named Hailey, who for four years has been devoted to caring for homeless people. Her work started with giving a homeless person a sandwich, but ballooned into keeping a garden for homeless people so they could have fresh vegetables, and raising money for and building temporary shelters for homeless people in her community. Her mom said that she would not want anything material for herself, so all the money raised in honor of this child is being poured back into building ten additional shelters for homeless people in her community. Now, just imagine all the families of these homeless people, some of whom must be terribly worried for them, or even feel guilt that for whatever reason cannot help them. They may have no idea that God is working through this nine year old child to give their loved ones help that meets them where they are and conveys that the universe still deems them worthy of respect, dignity, and love.

You are not the only person who is in charge of helping and loving the people you love. God is at work in creative, surprising ways. Your people will have friends, mentors, spouses, counselors, pastors who will do the work of God in their lives. The burden of their success or even their safety is not on your shoulders. Keep praying for your people, keep loving your people, and know that Jesus joins you in prayer and trusts in God’s radical all encompassing love.

And look around, because God may be calling you to be the Body of Christ for someone else’s special person. God may be calling you to be the answer to a frantic, hopeful prayer. You are part of God’s radical, generous love story.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Easter 5, Year B, 2015

Seventeen years ago, the Coen brothers released a movie called The Big Lebowski.  The plot of this movie is incredibly complicated and not necessary to rehash here.  In summary, a dead beat named Jeffrey Lebowski is confused with a millionaire named Jeffrey Lebowski and all kinds of hijinks ensue.  The dead beat Jeffrey Lewbowski calls himself the Dude and is as laid back as that name might connote.  He is unshaven, probably unwashed, and a total slacker.  He has no apparent job, and his only serious relationship is with his bowling buddies.  In short, he is not particularly admirable.

And yet, this character became a cult sensation.  People LOVE the Dude and people still quote his famous line, “The Dude abides. . .”

“The Dude abides.”  This, I think is the core of what is loveable about Lebowski.  Abide here not only describes his endurance of this farcical plot, but his attitude about life.  He is not here to act, or accomplish.  He exists merely to abide.  And this slacker attitude is so counter cultural to everything we are taught to be.

From the moment a doctor puts us through an APGAR test when we are born, we spend our lives being measured.  We take tests to get into Kindergarten.  We are measured at every well visit and told how we compare to other children.  We take standardized test after standardized test and then once we are thrust into the adult world we still compare ourselves with others—but now we compete over race times, and salary, and promotions.  We are taught to work hard and achieve.  And so the Dude enchants us with his extraordinarily laid back approach to life.  He becomes a fantasy of another way to live—one in which we have no responsibilities, no one against whom to compete.

The idea of abiding is both enticing to us and makes us nervous.  We don’t know how to abide, but we suspect if we started to abide, we might never get off the couch again.

And yet, here in the Gospel of John we have Jesus telling us to do just that.

Well, Jesus tells us to abide, but Jesus’ idea of abiding is pretty different from the Big Lebowski’s.  Where the Dude’s abiding is not rooted in anything beyond his own desires, Jesus’ idea of abiding is about deep connection with God.

Jesus envisions himself as a vine tended by his Father.  He envisions us as branches in the vine.  With this image he invites us to “abide in him, as I abide in you”.  Branches, of course, don’t just lie next to a vine.  The substance of the vine becomes the substance of the branch.  The same water and nutrients that pour through the vine, pour through the branches.  The vine doesn’t boss the branches around, the vine provides everything the branch might need to grow.

The branches don’t just sit around enjoying slurping up all the vine’s nutrients, either.  The branches produce fruit.

In our life of faith, we can take the messages we receive from our culture and think that to love God we have to constantly be producing something.  We have to retreats, and mission trips, and outreach projects and fundraisers.  We have to put up billboards and bake for coffee hour and make a million crafts for VBS!

But the picture of the life of faith that Jesus paints for us in this parable is not one of frantic work.  Jesus paints a picture of a quiet, nurturing relationship in which we are so connected to Jesus through prayer that our lives start to change and we start to bear fruit.

Bearing fruit is not about producing frantic actions on our part, but about shaping our character.  The Apostle Paul writes that these fruits are:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Staying connected to the vine through prayer, allows the Holy Spirit to shape us.  Abiding leads to a rich spiritual life.

This development of a spiritual life can lead us to right action.  Instead of frantically “doing” to get the world’s approval, when we abide, we are able to discern what actions are in line with God and which are just the little ego strokes we like to give ourselves every so often.

Abiding in God can give us deep courage.

I have been so struck this week by what is happening in Baltimore as you start to dig below the surface media coverage.

If my city was experiencing the tensions Baltimore is now facing, it would be sorely tempting for me just to stay inside and bar the doors!  Ignoring huge problems seems like a reasonable solution to someone not abiding in Jesus.

But so many people are showing the fruits of the spirit in Baltimore.  Teachers and principals at area high schools are trying desperately to make their student feel heard and safe.  Community centers threw together spur of the moment day care centers for families who had to work despite schools being closed Monday.  Children and adults were out on the street first thing in the morning, cleaning up and claiming their community. Clergy and faithful lay people who have been out on the streets for days, marching and praying and offering communion to anyone who will have it.

I imagine many of these souls are people who abide.  I imagine many of these people deeply know the love of God and have had their character shaped by a lifetime of prayer and Christian community.  They know that loving God always results in loving people.  Being a branch means being connected to the vine, but also reaching out to all the other branches.  Every branch is connected to the same vine.  We all belong to each other.

As you know, a handful of us here at St. Paul’s have been taking an enneagram class with Sarah Tremaine.  The enneagram is a map of the human condition, in a way, and each of the nine personality types has some very particular disconnect with God.  A particular way in which their branch doesn’t quite connect with the vine. What has struck me about the class is how the way to heal that disconnect is universal—be in prayer and meditation.  The way that prayer and meditation is shaped may look slightly different for each of the nine types, but the core to healing is connection with God.  Whether you are being blocked by your fear or your perfectionism, or your inability to follow through, or the way you bulldoze through life—whatever your issue, abiding with God, reconnecting with the vine, will help you become more whole and more balanced.

I am the type of person who is always convinced a new organizing system is going to help whatever feeling of disconnect I am currently experiencing.  Surely a new system for my closet or a new way to file papers on my desk will make everything better!  But when huge issues like an earthquake in Nepal or unrest in Baltimore come up, I feel truly overwhelmed.  Target does not sell a single thing that can help the thousands of families who have lost loved ones or people who feel hopeless and marginalized.

But this image of a nurturing vine and loving vine grower can be so helpful and healing to us in big crises.  Because even if we can’t directly solve institutional racism or rescue hurting people, we can stay connected to God, who will lead us to help in the small ways we can.  And by staying connected to God, we also somehow stay connected to those strangers who are suffering, since they are branches on the same vine, after all.  Our prayers reach them, and theirs reach us.

So, abiding is not the work of slackers.  Abiding is the deep work of people who want to break through their own unhealthy patterns and connect to a deeply loving God.  Abiding is for those who have the courage to connect deeply to fellow human beings, even those very different from them.  Abiding is for those humble enough to realize that their own frantic actions or passionate Facebook statuses are not going to solve the world’s problems.

Abiding is for us.  God’s gift to a people who he loves.  May we ever be his fruitful branches.

Amen.