Mustard Seeds

It was a busy Thursday with a 7:00 AM Building Committee meeting and a 6:00 PM confirmation meeting. Other meetings were scheduled and one was cancelled during the day. The outside door was left unlocked by the Building Committee. Around 8:30, a man came into my office so quietly he startled me. He walked with a shuffle. His limbs were thin. He asked if he could come in to talk to the pastor.

Somewhat reluctantly, I took him to the library where he sat on the couch. I have been scammed many times by people with hard luck stories. I have turned away a few people based upon appearance. This time, I let him in. His voice was raspy and thin. I could detect the south Bronx accent. He began to tell me his story.

He served Ladder Company Number 5 in New York. On that day in September 2001, he was the first one in to Tower 2. He carried out dozens of people in countless trips up and down the stairs. Caught between the fifth and sixth floor when the tower collapsed, it took him 17 hours to get out of the rubble. Only two out of nine in his company survived.

Brought up Roman Catholic, he said he converted to Episcopalian based upon how he was treated by the Episcopal Church. He knew the name of the church across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. He knew the name of the woman priest who was on duty that day and who converted the church into a food, rest, and emergency care center for the police and firemen. He told me he had visited a large church “over there” (here in Muskogee) that “looked like a bank.” He said the pastor there treated him like trash and would not help him. At age forty five, he was in the final stages of stomach cancer. He had lost eighty pounds.

He pulled up his shirt to show me the surgical scars on his stomach, looking more like a road map than human flesh. During the few hours he spent with us, he was in some distress. He showed me his stomach later and I could tell it was bloated. He talked to me about his memories of that day. He shared details and stories I cannot repeat from the pulpit. The stories and descriptions were too vivid and detailed to be part of someone’s scam. He said that he should not have survived that day. We talked about survivor’s guilt and he seemed to understand a little better.

He quoted John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and he added to it, “Greater love is to lay down one’s life for people you don’t even know.”

I typically write my sermon on Thursday. I had started on it Wednesday night but I decided to throw that one away. It seemed like the sermon God wanted me to preach had walked through the door.

His shirt was soiled and he asked if we had any clothing. B.J. reached into our box of tee shirts and found one his size. As he started to put it on, I saw a tear in one corner of his eye. I said, read what it says. He looked and smiled as he read out loud, “Loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

The launching point for the story of the Good Samaritan is the question posed by the young Bible scholar who was attempting to trap Jesus. The question was “And who is my neighbor?”

Let me re-tell Jesus’ response: A man is beaten up by life’s journey and knocks on the door for help. One church says he looks like homeless trash and they throw him out. ‘He doesn’t sound like one of us’ they say to themselves. Another church invites him in, gives him food and drink, gives him a shirt to wear, prays with him and helps him with transportation. Which of these churches is a neighbor to this man?

Grace Episcopal Church in Muskogee Oklahoma is a church with tremendous compassion. We reach out to our local community and to those in need. That is why we need to dig deeper and make sure we can complete our building project with a functioning kitchen.

Grace Episcopal Church is also a church that teaches and forms people. We actually teach and form people to be compassionate servants of God. We do this through our programs with young people, adults, choir, mission trips, social events, and worship. We are a congregation that reaches people and teaches people. This is our role in Muskogee, and we do these things better than any place for fifty miles around.

We are small right now. I must confess to you that I worry about our future a lot. I worry about the building project and I worry about our operating budget. But when I can be part of the compassionate heart of this church, that worry goes away. It is as if God reaches out to jolt me out of my worry. God smacks me with a 2×4 and says “Look at who you are. Look at this church. Right now you are just seeds in the hand of the planter.”

And so we are.

We are mustard seeds in the hand of the planter. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God ? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At some point in the life of every congregation, they experience being a tree or a shrub with branches and fruit and great size. Trees and shrubs have a life cycle. At some point they produce seeds and then die. At some point the planter takes those seeds and scatters them. After a while they begin to grow again.

With seeds of reaching and teaching in compassion, God has a plan for us; a hope and a future. All we have to do is make sure that we water and tend the garden.



Getting Some Perspective

Today’s readings seem to be the perfect complement to the Father’s Day weekend float trip followed by yesterday’s float on the Illinois River. When I moved here in March of 2010, two things I brought strapped to my SUV were a mountain bike and a kayak. I have traveled thousands of miles by small boat. I have rescued people and I know the terror of involuntary exit from a boat in heavy whitewater. I was on a commercial raft trip in Tennessee with a friend. We slid into an eight foot drop and I was unable to stay in the boat. I will never forget the image of the shadow of the raft going over my head as I remained trapped below the surface. To this day, God only knows how I got free. This was undoubtedly the kind of terror the disciples experienced in their small, wooden craft tossed about by fierce winds at night on the Sea of Galilee.

Whether the first century or the twenty first century, life seems to be ruled by chaos. Just about the time things seem to sail in a predictable course where your family, friends, health, and job all are going well, something happens to knock it off course: a dread disease, a layoff, a death, a relocation, a divorce, something. Chaos lurks under the surface, always ready to strike fear and bring about suffering.

Many world religions begin with the contemplation of human suffering. Buddhism was born from this contemplation. Judaism has the book of Job among others. Christians have the writings of Paul. We will return to the book of Job shortly, but first a cautionary note.

It is possible to chop the Bible into convenient proof-text pieces and then use those pieces to prove or disprove almost any point of view. This is the real danger of those “Bible camps” for kids where they go and bulk up on memorizing chunks of scripture. It makes the parents proud, but it takes the student or the seeker out of the process and replaces them with a robot that only knows the words of all those Bible chunks. As a result, the student or seeker is no longer capable of thinking for themselves. They have lost their God-given gift of human reason.

The proof-text approach looks at today’s reading in chapter 38 and treats it as a footnote to the previous teaching on how to live a faithful life. I could not disagree more with this conclusion. Behind this popular (and in my view, wrong-headed) interpretation of Job is the presumption that people suffer because they have sinned.

The best sermons do not spoon feed you answers. They leave you with questions to ponder.

An English priest said long ago that we are to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Bible. To do this, you need to get some perspective. Let’s cruise up to 10,000 feet and take a look.

Did you know the over-arching story of the Bible starts in a garden and ends where? The Garden of Gethsemane, or perhaps the garden where the Jesus is laid in the tomb. Adam and Eve hear God’s footsteps in the garden at the beginning. At the tomb, Mary sees Jesus and thinks he is a gardener.

We could have started today’s service with a different blessing than the Trinity. We could have said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” which is taken out of the Book of Job just before today’s reading. Remember that Job has lost everything: his possessions and his family. Instead of cursing God for his predicament, Job shaves his head, tears his clothing, and says, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Knowing that context, does it shift your understanding of what we are saying when we start our Sunday worship with that text?

Let’s think about today’s passage from 10,000 feet. First you need to think about what the writer’s goal is and the audience for whom the story was first written. Did you know that there are earlier versions of Job in three ancient languages predating this writing by more than a thousand years? These texts were found in Sumeria, Babylon, and Egypt. Some of the wording in the Hebrew Job is a word for word translation of parts of these earlier texts.

In every case, the over arching purpose of the writer was NOT to use it as a story about what God will do for us because of our faithfulness. Instead, these four stories of Job tell us about the nature of God. Each version attempts to address the question that is as old as humankind: Why do the righteous suffer? Or to use the title of a modern book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”

Preaching easy answers to questions that have no answers is basically elevator music. It is intended to calm your fears while you are trapped inside a little box going up and down. How many of you intentionally listen to elevator music on your iPod or your car radio? Easy answers to the Bible may calm our fears in the short term, but in the end they have no substance and no lasting effect. Let’s look at this ending of Job again.

This passage could be told in a modern movie format. I can imagine David Attenborough giving the opening line and Morgan Freeman taking God’s lines. This is poetry and it is full of powerful images. This is a story about God’s faithfulness to us and to all of creation.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements– surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb? —
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”



The Real Deal

This week I attended a seminar on technology for churches. One new concept called “Environmental Projection,” involved taking a panoramic photograph of the inside of a large cathedral, and then projecting the images on the inside walls of a mega church so that the vast expanse of bare, sheetrock walls of a mega church suddenly looks like the inside of a real church. The whole idea made me laugh and it underscores the lengths people will go to make a poor imitation look like the real deal.

Relationships and communities are like that too nowadays. How many of you have been “Friended” on Facebook by someone you didn’t even know? Or by someone you cannot stand to be around? Beneath that mountain of information that we share about ourselves is the real truth of relationships that no amount of computer software will ever replicate. Social media may help reinforce pre-existing personal relationships, but they are a poor substitute for the real deal.

Today people who don’t even know each other can be “linked into” networks of colleagues. We can tweet and chat and IM and Skype and text to all of our friends and loved ones all over this tiny planet and even into outer space, but the sense of social isolation seems to be increasing in spite of all these virtual ways to connect with one another.

I used to watch “Extreme Makeover” on TV occasionally. The concept was to find a family in distress with a house that was in terrible shape. The reality TV crew would come in, design and build a brand new house for the family while they spent a week on vacation. The show would open where the host knocks on the door early on a Saturday morning to rouse the family. After the knock they would all come to the door. “Are you ready for this adventure? For your new house?” he would ask.

One time I looked closely at the family. Here it was, 7:30 on a Saturday morning and the family all popped out of their front door wearing color coordinated, neatly pressed polo shirts. In real life, most families roused at 7:30 on a Saturday morning are not going to come out looking like the Brady Bunch. At that moment I realized how much of the show was totally scripted.

So we have big box, mega churches trying to be real, old traditional churches by displaying images of the old stuff on their walls. The mega churches are taking the reality TV strategy trying to make themselves be something that they are not. Word is on the street that the evangelical churches are now discovering (gasp), structured liturgy!

We have social network technology serving as the reality TV of personal relationships. Whether it is images of a traditional church projected on the bare walls of a mega church, or whether it is electronic devices masquerading as your “friend,” a real church and a real friend can be hard to find.

Who are you really connected to? Who can you trust? When you are lying on that hospital bed and the doctor tells you to get your affairs in order, who are you going to pray to? Do you pray to the God that made you rich because some preacher told you to say a few words of belief in a televised service? Do you pray to the God who answers all your prayers just the way you want?

Or do you have a rocky relationship with this God out there? Have you had life experiences that felt like parts of you were getting pruned away? Have you wondered why parts of your life seemed to fade while unexpected parts flourished? Do you wonder when you pray late at night whether God is even listening at all?

You may recall the Trinitarian approach to prayer. We pray to the Father through Jesus working in us with the power of the Holy Spirit. We have a complicated relationship with God. Like real human relationships, it has its ups and downs. It has its wonders, mysteries and mountain top experiences. Our relationship with God is organic, natural, and totally real. “I am the vine. You are the branches.”

You won’t find God on a Facebook page.

And then there is the church. Let’s spin the idea of “Environmental Projection” on its head for a moment. Suppose we got it all wrong. Imagine that we find a way to project bare, painted walls over all these windows. We cover up the windows telling the story of the Bible. We cover up the dedication and love of families, some still sitting here, who labored as saints in ages past. We cover up the century of liturgies from four different prayer books. Next we strip the altar rails, pews, and all that objectionable stuff out of the front and just make it look like a junior high auditorium.

We have thrown out the bedrock Nicene Creed with all of its challenges and stability. We have peeled away the idea that fixed-form prayers and structured liturgy could actually be helpful in leading you to that organic connection to others and to God. We have taken a wrecking bar to worship principles and a sense of community that has worked well for 2000 years. What did we get in return for all this effort?

We just created the big-box, shopping mall mega church where the pastor preaches absolutely anything that comes to his mind (and they are almost all male). We get a church that oddly floats free from any real, organic connection to the timeless church of the past two millennia. We get the virtual church of anything goes. We get the good time place that answers your prayers the way you want. We get the reality TV church that emphasizes only this generation with no connection to the generations of the past.

I am not suggesting that you cannot have a real, organic, complicated relationship with God in this kind of a church. I am suggesting that the process of creating these churches is just like the process of live television: It is completely absorbed in the now. In doing so you have discarded so much that can anchor you and connect you. Developing the kind of relationship we value with God, will be very difficult.

“I am the vine. You are the branches.” We are connected to, grafted on, growing out of and part of God in so many ways. We are also connected to each other right now, in the past and in the future. We do not need environmental projection to make this a real church. We are real already. Now, go out and bear good fruit.



The Love Business

Some of you may know that since we have an interim organist, yours truly has been selecting most of the music except for the choir anthems. As I was looking on the web for mother’s day church music, I noticed that someone suggested the song, Harper Valley PTA.

Instead we sang a familiar tune with strange new words about a fourth century saint who may be obscure to many of you. Monica, mother of three from North Africa, would probably not be remembered except that she was the mother of St. Augustine AND the mother of Perpetua. Perpetua you ask? Well, yes, Perpetua would be martyred as a young adult; literally fed to the lions in the coliseum in front of a crowd. So Monica, the obscure, North African mother would change the course of world history through her own powerful faith and her children.

Although raised by Christian parents, her pagan husband prevented the baptism of their three children. Their eldest son, Augustine, would eventually go to school in Carthage where he adopted the Manichean belief. Have you ever noticed how even children who are close to their parents will often adopt habits, beliefs, and lifestyles that are totally foreign or even offensive to their parents? Monica was dismayed at her son’s choice of this crazy, Manichean religion. After seventeen years, she would eventually follow him across the Mediterranean to Rome and then to Milan before he converted to Christianity.

One of my favorite children’s stories is “The Runaway Bunny,” a 1942 book by Margaret Wise Brown. The book is a dialogue between a young bunny and his/her mother. The child-bunny fantasizes about going to all these places, and each time the mother bunny says she will follow the little bunny or be with the little bunny. Here are some excerpts:

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.
For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a fish in a trout stream
and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,
“I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a little sailboat,
and I will sail away from you.”

“If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,”
said his mother, “I will become the wind
and blow you where I want you to go.”

“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well
stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

And so he did.
“Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.

Because of their religious differences, Augustine tried very hard to run away from his mother. He was in his twenties and took passage on a boat to Rome without saying good bye to her. Soon, she followed him to Rome only to discover he had already left for Milan. She followed him to Milan. Eventually the Bishop of that city would change Augustine’s heart. Augustine converted to Christianity and the world was changed as a result. Monica passed away six months after her son’s conversion. She died in a foreign land after spending several years following her son.

There is an old Spanish proverb that says “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.” I still haven’t figured out if that means that I equal about ten pounds of a mother, but I do know that we are both in the love business. Jesus tells us that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is what mothers do.

Like it or not, we develop our first understanding of God’s love from our mother. This may or may not be a good thing, but develop we do. Healthy mothers sacrifice themselves for their children by giving of their time, their money, and as in the case of Monica, even their choice of place to live.

Some of us may have had less-than-ideal mothers and childhoods. Even in these situations, you may find love like a rose on a thorny bush. In many respects, a healthy church community can fill in the gaps for people with less-than-ideal families of origin. When you walk in the door of a healthy faith community for the first time, some people will say they feel like they are finally “at home.” I think what they are experiencing is a lack of judgment, a sense of acceptance, a smile, a touch, – in short, love.

Yes, healthy mothers and healthy churches are in the love business and our job is very simple: spread the love. Mothers do this by sharing their love with their children and grandchildren. In our church community we provide a safe place for those who have been wounded by other churches and even their families. Unlike places that talk a lot about Jesus and the Bible, we don’t talk a lot about what Jesus says, we simply try to do what he does. We share the love, or in the words of Jesus, we “love one another.”



Casting Lots

Muskogee has afforded a number of career and lifetime firsts for me. For example, last week I got the 8:00 service to laugh twice during the sermon. Also last week, I managed to get into an argument with a homeless person about scripture. There were several lessons in that encounter, not the least of which was security for our staff. As I left a while later for pastoral visits, I was concerned for the safety of staff and volunteers at church, knowing that there was a mentally unstable homeless person out there who now had a grudge against me.

The other lesson, surprisingly, was about stewardship. This former truck driver came into the office needing a pair of eyeglasses. With a few calls and emails we found someone who could take care of this man’s needs. He returned to the office and we told him the good news. Next he plopped down in my office to chat. I asked him how he managed to get into his current predicament and where he was going after he finished his time at the Gospel Rescue Mission. He evaded the first question, smiled and said “I will go wherever I go.”

Then he started asking me questions like “If you lost everything you had, would you be sitting here smiling?” He seemed arrogant about his state of bliss and my inability to get down to a zero level. I told him it would be impossible for me to lose everything because the last thing I would have to lose would be my faith in a redeeming God. He smiled with his arrogant smile and quoted Philippians 4:19 “My God will fully satisfy every need of yours.” He quoted this scripture in a way to justify his lack of concern for where he will go or what will happen to him. Because he believed God would provide for all of his needs, he was off the hook for responsibility or accountability. He didn’t like my reply.

“But you have only cited half the verse.” I said. “It is not about God as a servant to my needs but the entire verse is talking about God’s power on earth through Jesus. The verse ends with “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” This did not make the homeless person happy. In fact, he went from calm to ballistic. He was agitated in the chair. He got up. He pointed an angry finger at me and said as if to convince himself, “God will supply all my needs.” And he walked out.

How was this encounter connected to stewardship? Here was a person who was rescued by the inappropriate application of scripture. This man was led to believe that because part of a sentence from a book told him that God would give him everything he needed, that he did not need to do anything to receive such blessings. For him, the Bible was the book that sanctified his anything goes philosophy. For him, the Bible said all he needed to do was believe what some authority figure told him, and he would have a wonderful life.

I could see where he was going with this proof text of scripture, and I would have nothing to do with it. Lines were clearly drawn. I was still willing to work with him for his new eyeglasses, but he walked out. I am sure he thought I would go straight to hell. I prayed for him. He sauntered down the street with two bad knees.

How does this apply to stewardship? Stewardship is not just about what we choose to give back to God. It is about how we care for what God has given us. Belief in a “vending machine God” as this homeless person did, is both a very primitive stage of religious development and bad stewardship. God is not a vending machine where we punch the button “God, I need some place to stay tonight” and God provides. You punch another button that says “God, I need food today” and God provides. God doesn’t work like this. To believe in this god is to engage in the magic thinking of three year olds.

The distinction in stewardship is the same old battle between the private religion preached by evangelicals around the globe, and the public religion of Jesus. Private religion puts God in the position of the eternal giver of blessings, gifts, and meeting the demands of people who way “God will provide all my needs.” The public faith of Jesus says that we are to respond in gratitude for what God has given us. And out of gratitude, we are to pass on the blessings to others.

Real stewardship invites us to look at what God has provided us already: our lives, our health, our families, our community, this church, our jobs, and so on. We give thanks for what we have been given. Our celebration every Sunday is a service of giving thanks for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. What part or our own lives and our selves can we give up in return for what Jesus has given us?

Our Epistle from the first book of John refers to something we exchange at the altar rail every Sunday. John tells us, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” At the rail, you will hear “The body of Christ, keep you in eternal life.”

Those who are into private religion, the faith of God meeting my needs, and the faith of personal salvation, will hear this as a proclamation that if I believe in all the words about Jesus, then I will live for eternity. But in the public faith of Jesus, eternal life is not about eternity. It is about living FOR something right now. Living FOR what God wants you to be. Living FOR the benefit of others.

Do you live for the betterment of this church, this community, your schools, your children, your grandchildren? Do you live for moving our community to a more sustainable environmental practice? Do you live for justice with the poor and disadvantaged in our community? Do you live for improving the health and well being of other people here? If these are part of your hopes, dreams and daily life, then you are living in eternal life right now.

When you receive the wafer in your hands, and you hear the words “The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.” This is a nudge to put your life in the service of others.

Living FOR the betterment of other people is what all Christians are called to do. We are Christians because our focus is outward towards others. This is not a private religion of me and Jesus and my salvation. This is a faith of making God present for other people in ways that improve their lives.

After Judas hanged himself, the disciples wanted to bring a new person into their circle to replace Judas. All things being equal between several candidates, they drew lots, believing that the hand of God would determine the selection of the lot. Matthias was chosen because of this process.

You should know that the Greek word for clergy is “kleros.” It is the word used in this passage for “lots.” The notion of becoming a clergy person is that your vocation as clergy is your lot in life. God chooses the one to be ordained. All we have to do is respond. That is really true for all of us; ordained or not.



Imagine

Once I tried to get the bishop to declare the first Sunday after Easter, “Missouri Sunday,” but he wouldn’t go for it. If you are from the Show Me State, today is your day. Thomas had to have been a Missourian because he told the other disciples, “Unless I see where the nails went in his hands and the wound in his side, I will not believe.” In other words, “show me.”

But there is so much more today than just seeing and believing. Next Sunday is Earth Day, a day when we celebrate our common stewardship of the earth. Our psalm today reflects the universal brotherhood of mankind. This psalm has been a popular Israeli folk song since the 1940s. And of course on this first Sunday after Easter, we hear about the very early Christians, how “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

I would guess that over the centuries, a swimming pool of ink has been spent on the story of Thomas, about not-seeing and believing, and about the power of belief itself. This may be one of the touchstones where we start moving down that slippery slope – that dangerous territory where we tell the world that being Christian is all about what we think and say instead of how we actually behave and what we do.

That disconnect where we say one thing and do another is dangerous and unholy. Maybe it is time to leave Thomas alone and focus on concrete terms of what it means to live together in harmony. The psalm talks about oil used for anointing kings, but instead of the tiny dab we get at baptism, there is so much of this expensive oil that it flows down to the bottom hem of the clothing. What a mess. The metaphor conveys a sense of abundance and the messiness. Living together in harmony is not easy. It is messy AND in God’s dream for us, it is abundant.

Next the psalmist goes on to say that living together in unity is a blessing like dew in the mountains hundreds of miles away that overflows so much it can provide water in the desert. The unity of humankind ordained by God is described as oil and water – two things that don’t mix. Could they be Democrats and Republicans? Christians and Muslims? Rich and poor? What could we do at Grace Church in Muskogee to demonstrate how we actually live together in unity with each other and with the greater Muskogee community?

Our local newspaper carries articles every day on the front page about meth lab busts, growing marijuana in the garden, violent crime, and the decay of education. All of these things are signs of people living separate lives, apart from one another in dis-unity.

Could those of us sitting here provide a concrete antidote to the toxic front page news just one day a week for a year? Could we deliver fifty two examples of living together in unity? Can you imagine a weekly press release? “Grace Church builds community garden” “Grace Church creates basketball court” “Grace Church beautifies corner with rain garden and landscaping” “Grace Church restarts meals programs” “Grace Church launches new GED and ESL programs” “Grace Church Youth make a difference teaching others.” The heart of this parish has always reached out to the community, but could we actually organize and get others involved so that we make a difference right here in Muskogee? Could we put some good news on the front page just once a week for a year?

I must confess to you that I have recently written about plugging the holes in our programs so that Grace Church provides opportunities for all ages to get involved. If you look around, you can see there is plenty of room for more people to join us. But maybe this is the second place where churches lose their way. The first place is when churches emphasize words and thoughts over behavior. The second place is when the primary goal of church programs is to increase membership. Both of these practices are hypocritical and both are major reasons why the public stays away from churches.

I am suggesting that we return to a much more basic idea, an idea where the return on investment may not be an instant increase in church membership. I want to plant a seed in your hearts which is a song that Jesus must have sung as a child while doing chores with his mother. It is a very simple idea, and it is God’s dream for us. “How good and pleasant it is when people live together in unity.”

There is a strong caveat here. Living together in harmony does not necessarily mean doing things FOR other people in the sense of well-off people giving charity to the less fortunate. When we sit down to eat during Servings of Grace, we are living together. We may also have the mentally ill with us posing challenges. This is the messy part. God’s dream for humanity is not people of the same social and political class coming together to say a bunch of words on Sunday. God’s dream is messy where Christians and Muslims, gay people and straight people, rich and poor, black and white, and all kinds of different people are able to live together in harmony.

One day a week for a year; could we actually do it? Could we actually get on the front page of the local paper once a week with some good news for a change? I wonder.



The Shepherd

For many of us, instead of opening our hearts to prayer, Sunday school, or for Jewish children, Hebrew school,l can have the effect of silencing our natural instinct to prayer. It’s like the story of a simple shepherd, who every day would offer his personal prayer to God: “God, I love you so much, that if you were here, I would give you half of my sheep. If it was raining and you were cold, I would share my blanket with you.”

One day a great rabbi was walking by the field, and he heard the shepherd praying. He ran up to him, and said “Do you call that praying? Are you kidding? What would God do with your sheep? Of what use would a blanket be to God? Here, let me show you to pray properly before you further dishonor God’s holy name!” The rabbi then gave a brilliant lecture on the structure and meaning of the various prayers, and explained what to say and how to say it to the poor shepherd.

As soon as the rabbi left, the shepherd sat there stunned. He didn’t understand a word of it. But he knew the great rabbi was quite upset that his prayers were not proper. So he stopped praying.

For too many of us, that’s where the story ends. Fortunately for the shepherd, there is more to his story

Up in Heaven, God noticed the silence, and said “what happened to the beautiful prayers of my humble shepherd?” He decided to send an angel down to go and find out what was wrong. The angel found the shepherd, and the shepherd told him the whole story of his meeting with the rabbi. The angel said, “what does that rabbi know? Would you like to see how we pray in Heaven?” The shepherd instantly agreed and the angel whisked him off to Heaven, where he saw a Heavenly Host standing and proclaiming: “God, I love you so much, that if you were here, I would give you half of my sheep. If it was raining and you were cold, I would share my blanket with you.” The shepherd happily went back to his prayers, and God happily listened.

Now I must make a confession to you: I am that rabbi.

Professionally educated with way too many degrees, I am more comfortable lecturing than listening. I can be more comfortable leading in front than praying a humble prayer in the back. I need to learn from that shepherd. I sometimes let competency and knowledge blind me from the prayers and holiness right in front of me. Sometimes what I see and hear in the world may not fit my preconceived ideas, so I reject the shepherd’s prayer because it is not like mine.

But there is much more to this than my confession. In many respects the Episcopal Church is that rabbi as well. The world out there is the shepherd saying his humble prayer. The good news is that God listens to the prayers from the Episcopal Church AND God listens to the prayers of the humble shepherd.

How often do we look down upon other worship expressions because they are unusual? How often do we encounter prayer and worship that we reject because it doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas?

I am not suggesting that we have to reshape our practices of prayer and worship along the lines of other churches. Could we learn from the shepherd? Could we appeal to more people with an additional, simpler service?

The world is full of people who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” They want to pray like the shepherd without an educated priest or rabbi telling them how to pray. They already know the simple truth of what we have missed: The Lord is the shepherd.

The world has changed profoundly in this generation. Like the rabbi, our beloved church has been stuck doing the same thing for too long while the world passed us by. Maybe it is time for us to listen to our youth and listen to the world out there so we can learn how to be a church in this generation.

Maybe if we sit down and really listen to what they are saying, we can learn something from our children. Maybe.



The Butter Churn

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that he must be all things to all people in order to win more people to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Corinth at the time was a cosmopolitan city engaging in trade worldwide. By analogy you could think of modern day Qatar or Sydney or Kuala Lumpur. Paul is telling the Corinthians by way of his example that they must meet the different cultures they encounter in their context: the Jews, the Greeks, the slaves, the free, those under the law, those not under the law, and so on. Paul puts the message of the Gospel in terms that each sub-culture can understand and he expects the Corinthian church to do the same.

One of the ironies of the Anglican-Episcopal tradition is that we started out with flexible, adaptable worship and theology five hundred years ago, and through the years what we say we believe and how we worship has turned into stone. Today, any given Episcopal church tends to present only one understanding of worship and one dominant theology. If Paul were here today, he would point out that by maintaining such rigidity; we are missing 80% of the people around us.

Now many of us are here because we like the style of worship and theology, and we are probably comfortable with this particular community? Why would we want to diversify? 1. Because the Great Commission we heard last week commands us to baptize and teach, and diversification is one of the best strategies to reach more people. 2. Because a diverse community strengthens the individual. You will be made stronger, richer, and more spiritually whole by greater diversity. We could go on at length on either of these, but more pressing things need to be said.

We could look at different cultures of people such as Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Indians, and so forth, but there is another way to look at culture today that cuts across traditional notions of race, sex, and age. Today you can find people of all different races, ages, and sexes located in any of four categories. These categories will sound vaguely religious but they are much broader than that. Each one forms a world-view. Each one is value-neutral in that it is neither right or wrong, good or bad, better or worse than others. Finally, real human beings tend to move among these categories and even combine them. Here we go:

Fundamentalists – There are fundamentalists in every major world religion. It is an approach to sacred scripture maintaining absolute positions of right – wrong, good – evil, etc. The whole idea of fundamentalism originated in response to modernism and the scientific method about two hundred years ago. While most members of this congregation tend to veer away from fundamentalism, what would happen if, like Paul, we thought carefully about what we had to be and do in order to proclaim the Gospel to people in this category?

Traditionalists – This group tends to define their reference point for tradition on a personal or institutional experience. You find people in all religions whose best personal time might have been in their thirties with small children and a family. Consequently their reference point for the traditional church or mosque or synagogue would be whatever form of prayer and worship was practiced during that time. Episcopalians today might consider one of four prayer books from 1895 to 2005 as their “tradition.” Methodists tend to have more of an institutional tradition in their connection to John Wesley’s personal conversion and his approach to organizing for ministry. Whatever it is, everyone is comfortable in their particular tradition and we are often reluctant to try anything else. The challenge to any religious community is how do we avoid making an idol out of our own tradition? Could we add different traditions and appeal to a greater number of people?

Modernists – This group anchors their belief in the scientific method of Isaac Newton. Thomas Jefferson was a good modernist. So was the atheist Christopher Hitchens. Most modernists reject religious beliefs as myth or fairy tale. For them, the only valid reality is that which can be explained rationally and empirically. Things like the Nicene Creed, virgin birth, resurrection, and other miracles fall outside the realm of acceptable history for modernists. We have here in Muskogee a fair number of folks who fall into this camp and who simply do not attend any church.

Ironically, the modernist perspective is based on a scientific approach that ended in the 20th century. The question remains for us to ponder. How can we proclaim the gospel to those who reject faith itself as irrational?

Post-Modernists – Like it or not, any western person under thirty today has attended school and grown up in a post-modernist world-view. For the post-modernist, truth is plural and is found differently by different people in different contexts. Intuition is valued as much or more than rational thought. Uncertainty, ambiguity, and irony are embraced rather than shunned. Personal lives as well as the trajectory of entire countries may seem more like aimless wandering in many directions than a purposeful march in the direction of “progress.”

The generational gap today between parents of twenty-somethings and younger is more difficult than ever because it includes all the usual stuff of age difference along with this post-modern world view that most adults find baffling. The challenge for us in church is not to bury our heads in the sand of tradition, but for us to actively reach out. This is the dominant view of the world around us today. It is our calling to adapt and change.

Any church that wants to survive more than twenty years must understand all of these cultural currents and be able to evangelize without judgment. Like Paul, in order to grow we must be all things to all people, otherwise we will just evaporate.

In my house we have a number of antiques that came from the farm where Joan grew up. We still have the butter churn that she used as a child to churn butter. We have the butter mold and the wind up Victrola record player. You can only find these things in an antique store today. The products and services that have replaced these things are not necessarily better. They are just part of the world we have today. Yes, I must admit that sitting there, hand-churning whole milk into butter produces a kind of pleasure and satisfaction you just cannot buy in a grocery store. At the same time, you aren’t going to find a lot of people today who would churn their own butter when they could easily buy some at the store.

I love our forms of worship and our theology, and I love a lot of things about the Episcopal Church, but to the world around us we are like that butter churn. Some people might not even understand what it is or what it does. Others would smile and think it was quaint. Still others would think it was so old-fashioned it only deserves to be put in the trash.

This church has so much to offer the community and the world around us. We have a high calling to present the good news of a loving God to all of these people. In order to reach those around us, we need to get past the image of the butter churn and meet them on their own ground, just like Paul.



The Inconvenient Poor

It was a typical day for me. The main phone line to the church was broken. The Internet connection was down. I had a class to teach at Bacone at noon and just enough time to get to the hospital to see someone who was really concerned about her state of health. My cell phone was ringing and the telephone repair person showed up. He needed to have several doors unlocked and the upstairs attic stairs rolled out for him. After getting the repair guy set up, I locked the office door and started to walk to my car. A homeless man stopped me needing money to wash his clothes. I had only a single dollar bill in my pocket to give him, and I did not have enough time to go inside to check my office drawer for any cash. I spoke with the man for a couple of minutes, all the while distracted by the fact that I needed to be at the hospital. It was a terrible feeling of being rushed and not really being present for the person who was in immediate need. In retrospect, I thought of today’s gospel and how it is with the poor. When the person in need is standing right in front of you, it can change your plans and your priorities.

It is common to turn on the news today and hear all kinds of talk, one way or the other, about government programs for the poor. We hear name calling and language we would not apply to anyone in person, all used in reference to the poor. They are out there somewhere, not really human, just nameless faces who put a burden on taxpayers. Yes, some of us as physicians, judges, lawyers, and clergy work professionally with the poor. But how often do we actually stop our busy schedule and change our plans because of the needs of a poor person?

But that is exactly what happened to Jesus. “After sternly warning the leper he healed, Jesus sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘Say nothing to anyone. Take the offering for cleansing that Moses prescribed and present yourself to the priest. This will validate your healing to the people.’ But as soon as the man was out of earshot, he told everyone he met what had happened, spreading the news all over town. So Jesus kept to out-of-the-way places, no longer able to move freely in and out of the city. But people found him, and came from all over.”

Who can blame the poor leper? He must have been blown away by his healing. Yet the leper, who had formerly been forced to hide from society, is now freely able to interact in society. Meanwhile, Jesus is forced to withdraw from society. Some translations say that he kept to “desolate places.” Jesus and the leper trade places in terms of where they live and how they can interact with society. How many of us in helping the poor have been forced to change zip codes?

The very real, tangible aspect of God incarnate in Jesus is that God experiences human suffering the same as any of us. Without hesitating, Jesus heals this leper. The consequence is that Jesus is effectively banished from society. It is all well and good to talk about Jesus being fully human and fully divine. But when Mary proclaims that God has lifted up the lowly; God has lifted up the poor; God has set the prisoners free; this lofty ideal demands energy and commitment. It changes the plans Jesus made, and he suffers as a result.

We do not need to enter the politically charged fracas about “concern for the poor” or “safety nets.” We need to come to grips with the very simple, very direct demand that when a poor person or family is standing in front of you, it can change your plans for the day and it can change your life. This work is inconvenient. It is messy. We sometimes get scammed. But we must do it risking the scam, risking the inconvenience, and risking the possibility that we might be changed.

Following a set of rules is easy. You either follow them or you don’t. But we all know that real people seldom fit into easy categories. Following Jesus is not easy. It is messy. It is uncertain. Things don’t always work out the way we expect them. We will likely find surprises along the way both pleasant and unpleasant.

Last week I was invited to teach a class on ethics at Bacone College. Towards the end I gave a quick test about career priorities. There were six items on the list: Money, Advancement, Authority, Fame, Knowledge, and Integrity. I asked them to rank the top three items in priority order. Of course, integrity should be first on any list because without it nothing else matters. Of the college students, only one out of eleven ranked integrity in their top three.

There is an institutional equivalent to this test. We can be like some church bodies and hide behind a bunch of rules. We can proclaim that these are the Bible-based rules for you to get into heaven. Just follow these rules and you will be saved. You should know that we do not do this at Grace. At the other extreme though, do we get too wrapped up in tradition and doing things decently that we miss the poor people right in front of us?

I wonder if a church with integrity would really try to follow Jesus in everything. Would we allow our carefully planned days to be disrupted by someone else’s problems or praise?

We are called to follow Jesus. We are called to baptize more people than we bury. And we are called to share the teachings of Jesus with others. I think we will grow as we do these things. I think we will have fun. I just hope that we don’t get so busy that we miss the poor people right in front of us.



The Time is Fulfilled

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled. Repent.” Our modern, scientific worldview gets in the way of our ability to understand what Jesus means by this simple statement. Let’s take a minute to unpack this.

Some years ago, the movie The Black Robe told the story of conflict between French Jesuit missionaries and the Algonquin Indian tribe of Quebec. Observing the missionaries’ daily rhythms being called to prayer at specific times during the day, the Algonquins were convinced that the clock was the God of the white man since it determined everything they did during the course of the day. Furthermore, because of their anxieties about being “on time” for prayer, for meals, and for appointments the clock seemed to underscore the Jesuits’ anxieties about their own death when time would come to an end. The white man’s clock and all our anxiety about time made no sense to the Indians of the North Country.

Throughout the movie the Jesuits became increasingly frustrated by their inability to make the Indians understand that they needed to make a decision to be baptized for the salvation of their eternal souls. In one case, a dying Algonquin refused baptism. Later on, an entire village of Hurons agrees to be baptized but the village is later massacred by another invading tribe. The Indians who were exposed to the Gospel seemed content to live out their lives, comfortable with the knowledge of this saving God. For them it made no difference whether they were baptized on their deathbed, baptized now, or not at all. The saving God the Jesuits proclaimed was out there. They would encounter that salvation in God’s time, not the Jesuits’.

For people living in different cultures, time is not the same thing. In our modern, scientific view, time marches down a straight path with past, present, and future clearly demarcated. In Jesus’ day, time was understood more in terms of family generations or the periods of particular rulers. The ending of one age always preceded the beginning of the next. Specific points in time were typically connected with religious and cultural festivals in the great cycle of being. Spring planting, fall harvest, new moon, and the rainy season all had their dates, and they all repeated the cycle every year.

The Greek Bible uses two different words for time. The word chronos referred to the minute by minute march of the sun. During the heyday of ancient Greece, different groups of warriors syn – chronized the time of their attacks using leather wrist-straps coated with a material that would change colors after a certain number of minutes or hours. The other term, kairos, had nothing to do with ordinary linear time. Kairos refers to a special moment or an event ordained by God. Jesus begins his ministry in Mark by proclaiming “The kairos is fulfilled,” meaning that God’s promise of a prophet and savior is real.

One thing that has always bothered me about the notions of time and salvation is the popular idea that all the people who ever lived before Jesus could not be saved, or they could not go to heaven. Why would God write off half of humanity just because they died before Jesus came along?

But if you look at this statement not as modern sequential time, but as kairos, it is an opportune moment, a special time or a divinely ordained event. God’s promise is made complete in the person of Jesus. Jesus is making a statement of fact apart from the idea of when it happened. God’s salvation has been available. God’s salvation is available now, and God’s salvation will be available in the future. The kingdom of God is very near you. It always has been, is now, and will be forever.

Some flavors of Christian practice are like pixie dust. You get dunked in water, or you say a few words in front of the assembly, or someone else says some words on your behalf and all of a sudden, POOF, your soul has a guaranteed spot in heaven for all eternity. But in our flavor of Christian practice, the battle is never finished until we cross over into the next world. We have work to do. We must be disciplined. Jesus tells us plainly, “Repent.”

This command is sometimes translated as “turn around.” Literally he is saying “change your mind,” but the sense is not strictly intellectual. It is more like changing your whole being or changing your entire orientation. This is not an easy task for adults. If we have patterned our life where power or money or intelligence or social skills are the things that make us proud or happy or fulfilled, Jesus is telling us to CHANGE OUR RELATIONSHIP with those things and put God first. Then put the needs of other people in front of our needs.

Jesus also reminds us that one cannot get into the kingdom of heaven except as a little child. For example people of all ages love to play games. We celebrate the winners and comfort the losers. But in the 1976 Special Olympics in Spokane Washington, a few of the contestants for the 100 yard dash gave us a different way to play. Warning: This story is often told with embellishments to the facts that worsen our stereotypes of the disabled.

One of the contestants fell shortly after leaving the starting line. Not all, but a few of the competitors noticed this and they turned around to help the child get up and make it past the finish line. Physically and mentally challenged people are not specially blessed by God as angels or with superior social skills. They want to win just as much as we do. For the Special Olympics they train hard. The Special Olympics event is not some benign, casual get-together organized for the unfortunate few. It is a serious sporting event where each competitor strives to do his or her best. It is about trying.

The important aspect of this story is not the typical tear-jerker version where the entire field of contestants turns around and one little girl kissed the fallen child. No. The important version is the true story. A FEW of them turned around. A few of them turned around.

We run this game of life every year, and every year we get a chance to turn ourselves around. God’s time for us does not run in a straight line, but it loops around giving us opportunity to change our relationship with things. Winning in this game does not mean coming in first. It means crossing the finish line and sometimes with help from our friends.

The motto of the Special Olympics is something we can take home today: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”