June 21, 2015

Proper 7-B

Job 38:1-11,16-18; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Mark 4:35-41;(5:1-20); Psalm 107:1-32 or 107:1-3, 23-32


On the evening of October 17, 1989, I arrived in Charleston SC from San Diego and rode with my to-be manager to Edisto Beach, about 40 miles away to what was to be my home and place of employment, Fairfield Resort. We opted to eat at the restaurant bar so we could watch the World Series, being played in San Francisco. Instead of the ball game, however, there was awful news of the San Francisco/Oakland earthquake - a major disaster in which 67 people died and over $5Billion in damage occurred. I was immediately  frantic, for my sister, with whom I had been living, was in SF earlier in the day. I was not sure the time of her returning flight to SD. It was hours before I finally reached her by phone, and even then, she had not been able to contact her husband who had remained in the City.  

All of this was about a month after Hugo, a Category 5 hurricane had struck Charleston and ripped an awful path of destruction in the region. And so began my experience with Charleston, SC: its beauty, its charm, and the stormy period that astonished me in many ways.

My role at the resort was that of site Human Resources Director. The employee population was about 50/50 Caucasian and African American. In 1989, although all the Civil Rights Laws had been passed, segregation of the races was still very much a way of life. Having lived in various other parts of the country for the previous 15 years, I was astonished that so many descendants of the old Southern families there were living in an antebellum fantasy world. I was astonished  driving down Highway 40 toward Charleston to see time and again a church for white folks on one side of the road and a church of the same denomination for black folks a block away on the other side of the road.  I was astonished to walk into an employee party to find black and white at opposite ends of the room, like junior high boys and girls at a school dance. I was astonished when after church one Sunday, a fellow parishioner whose family went waaay back, said to me, "You don't have to be Human Resource Manager to those N...'s do you?"

I saw the storm brewing, and set about finding allies to help me avoid yet another disaster. For my job description included conducting diversity training and seeing that all employees were treated fairly. I was already in the boat with Jesus, yet like the disciples in the Gospel reading, I was not sure who he was in this situation.

Now there were many lovely and kind people living there.  The people who became my supporters and who shared my view of social justice turned out to be Christ followers, black and white. With their help I gained the confidence of the African community on that island and was able to make some progress in doing the work I was hired to do.

So this past week, when I awoke to the news of the storm, the massacre at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, SC, I was horrified, I was very, very sad, but I was not particularly astonished. The storm warnings had been there for a very long time.

The Psalmist for today wrote "Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe. He gathered them out of the lands from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some went down to the sea in ships and plied their trade in deep waters....Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose, which tossed high the waves of the sea......They cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them from their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper and quieted the waves of the sea.......and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for." (PS 107)

In his letter to the Corinthians which was read earlier, Paul makes it clear that following Jesus as a faithful servant does not guarantee a life of all sunshine, no pain, no storms, no scary moments. He lays out rather specifically his own storms and yet Paul remained faithful, knowing that Jesus could and would calm the waves so that he, Paul, could continue his work and do it with affection for those whom God gave him. Remember that Paul was certainly a counter-culture figure, and so was Jesus, and so are any who seek social justice in this time and place.

So what has Charleston SC have to do with the community of St. Andrew's in the Heights? Are we not diverse, loving, welcoming, generous, and faithful? You see, the storm that brewed and still does, in SC, as I see it, was one of silence and tolerance for that which should not be - denial.  It was 1989 when I was there and this is 2015, not 1860! Jesus was about calling a spade a spade - especially when dealing with self-righteous Pharisees who would choke on a gnat and swallow a camel when it came to moral law. Jesus was about social justice in his command to us to love one another - ministering to the least, and the most awful of punishments being  set aside for those who would harm the most vulnerable among us.

In loving one another as ourselves, we are called to give to the needy and we are also called to speak for the voiceless, to speak up against injustice. When we do, we will find ourselves in the eye of a storm.

I was reminded yesterday in a sermon preached by The Rt. Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, Bishop of Kansas  at the ordination of deacons, that it is the duty of deacons to stir up storms - the winds of justice in the midst of silence that brings about the kinds of social eruptions and sin that occurred this week in Charleston. In some ways those eruptions occur daily here in Houston and if you listen even once a week to the local news you will  know that what I say is true. It can be scary and risky work to seek justice when no one wants to admit an injustice is being done. When great corporate and personal profits are being realized through unjust treatment of marginalized brothers and sisters. There is big business in the trade of narcotics and sex. There is lots of money to be made by squeezing out small business merchants through legislation that prohibits their profitable existence or trade practices that eliminate thousands of jobs in order to increase shareholder dividends! I wonder at the true reasons for closing so-called under achieving schools in Houston, which not so coincidentally are the places many impoverished children go to learn.

I confess, I hold shares in some corporations and I have worked for public corporations and small businesses. Profit is not a dirty word in my vocabulary; EXPLOITATION is.

Author Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as saying, "We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."

One more thing astonished me. A news anchor was interviewing  a former federal investigator, talking about how some members of Emmanuel AME Church, and especially members of victims' families, were ready to forgive the man who murdered in their sacred space. The anchor woman asked, where would the thought, the courage, the wherewithal come from to forgive such an act? She could not understand. I was astonished.

"A great windstorm arose,"  wrote Mark, "and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern asleep; and they woke him up and said, 'Teacher,  do you not care that we are perishing?' "

There are many about us - we pass them, perhaps unnoticing, every day, who wonder, "Do you not care that we are perishing?" They and we are in the same boat. Should they perish because of our silence,  our neglect, we will perish as well. Are we afraid to speak out for them? Jesus said, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"  Jesus came to reconcile ALL people to God: From the east and from the west; from the north and from the south.

I believe it is time for all of us who profess to be Christian, or Jew or Muslim for that matter, to engage in some honest self assessment and ask God for forgiveness  for our sins of silence. I believe it is time for us to Say, "Jesus, I care that they are perishing. Please show me the way to help you calm the storms and stem the tides of injustice, hate, ignorance, and other evils." Jesus can still calm storms, small and great. Jesus does care that his sheep are perishing. We are Jesus' eyes, hands, feet and voices in the stormy world.  We must put ourselves into the midst of the storms of injustice - both the loud ones and the silent ones,  so that in believing, we can do the work he sends us out to do. And believing, God will always equip the willing to bring about his peace to his creation.

For whom will you speak up? On what issue will you write letters, demonstrate before City Hall, the State House or other venues? What shareholder meeting will you sacrifice the time to attend? How will you vote in the next election?

Patrick Overton reflects in his poem “Faith”: “When you come to the edge of all the light you have And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown, You must believe one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for you to stand upon, or you will be taught how to fly.” Many times in our lives we face the unknown, the uncertainty of a future, an outcome, we cannot see. And what we have to hold onto in those moments is our faith that God is with us: that God will be our solid rock to stand on, or that we will be taught to fly.
I invite you to jump off the cliff with me as we develop our wings, and with Jesus' help, on the way down, we can calm the winds of the storms around us. Amen

March 15, 2015

Lent IV-B

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21


The way things went in my parents’ home was like this: Daddy earned the moneyand Mother spent the money. She first spent the money on necessities, including our food. She prepared the food and got it on the dining table. The rule that was sternly and consistently applied was: you will eat at least a little of everything on the table and you will eat everything on your plate. Picky eaters were not permitted, except my brother, who did not like white food. Mother solved that with beet juice or green peas nested in mashed potatoes, etc. If one of us decided we did not like the dinner offering, we had the opportunity to change our mind when the same thing appeared on our breakfast plate. OR – we stayed seated at the table until we ate the food or it was bedtime. The Israelites in today’s O.T. story would not have been happy at our dinner table. Looking back, I am glad there were not an abundance of poisonous snakes about.

The Israelites, just like we kids put themselves into an unpleasant predicament by their disobedience - their sins.  They refused to be content with gifts from God and instead complained that their liberated life did not meet their expectations. Sins are acts which block out God. Sins are actions we take as defense against God. News Flash:  We are All Sinners. We are all sinners throughout our lives. Even in the Prayer Book prayer commending the soul of a departed person to God's keeping, we identify the person as "a sinner of your own redeeming."

In the readings this Lent we are again given the Ten Commandments and as we hear them read, we may be tempted to say, “Well, I haven’t really done anything horrible. I usually obey those.” Are we like the Pharisees proud to claim we obey the laws and thank God we are not like the people who get covered on the ten o’clock news? Maybe we need to look a little deeper.

There is idolatry in the smugness of looking at our wealth, individual good health and sexual morality while ignoring the causes of and our possible contributions to poverty, public health threats and society’s moral decay. This is where the Israelites found themselves. God kept saving their lives and they kept turning away and refusing to recognize the gifts he poured upon them - they were not in the form they expected. So, the poisonous snakes appeared, and their bite was deadly. The snake or serpent has been a symbol of sin since the Garden of Eden story. But look what happens.

The people turned to Moses and confessed that they had sinned against God and against him and begged him to ask God to remove the snakes - take away their sin. God then demonstrates God's readiness to forgive by, in effect, saying, if your sin overtakes you, look to me and it will not kill you. I will overcome the death bite of sin. Note that sin was not eliminated. We are still tempted and, without God's help, we are so capable of getting entangled in wrong doing, wrong speaking, wrong perspective, that our resulting way of living can kill us.

Do we focus on sin or on forgiveness of both ourselves and others? Do we blame those folks in the 10 o'clock crime reports:  the poor, the thief, the prostitute, the murderer and say, “Thank God I am not like that.”? Or, through true repentance for our own sins do we, with God’s help, step up to act to eliminate the root causes of poverty, crime and the seeming breakdown of civility and morality in our society?  We know these causes:  greed, lust for power, self absorption and the self-righteousness which allows each one of us to convince ourselves that our way of living, our perspective, our circle is THE righteous “Christian” way. This is a defense against God and is often done in God’s name.

In Advent we heard the call of John the Baptist to repent. In Lent we need a reminder to repent because of our inherent memory lapses – just as the Israelites experienced. The Greek word from which the word repent is translated is metanoia, and means a change of perspective, a change of outlook or a transformative change of heart. Metanoia is more than a simple, "I'm sorry." Through repentance we can experience God's grace. Jesus sometimes would say to a person whom he healed, "Go and sin no more." But we are who God made us, and we continue to be the creatures God made, unworthy, yet worthy indeed by the grace of God through Christ.

We can infer from the section of Paul's letter read this morning that the Ephesians were also in need of metanoia. Paul said, "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient." Paul minces no words in telling them and us that living a life focused upon our own needs  is to live a life focused on a god of our own making and we become the god at the center of our universe. We do this in order to control that world - the world of people pleasing, extreme consumerism, (i.e. greed), lust, and all those other juicy behaviors that Jimmy and his friends talk about on Wednesday nights.

Yet, even though the Israelites were way off the straight and narrow; even though the Romans, Greeks and Jews of the First Century were way off; even though we, the people of this community get way off, God loved them and God loves us.

There is much happening in the world around us, both in our back yards and across the oceans that we might feel righteous in strongly condemning. Jesus, however, stressed though word and action, relationship with those whom others condemned. For only through relationship can we begin to live lives worthy of the cross and resurrection, the name, Christian.  John tells us that when God sent his Son, Jesus, into this world, it was not to condemn or punish his people. Rather, he came to show us how to live a life saved from sin. 

Jesus told Nicodemus to look to the risen Son of Man, just as the Israelites looked up to the serpent on the pole; look and believe in the risen Lord for the sake of your soul's salvation. To be Christ-like is to engage the people around us - those for whom we pray each week in this room and those we read about and meet in our daily walk through life. We, for our sake and theirs are to meet them and lead them to that cross by how we walk the talk and tell them of the availability of God's love and grace.  

God loved us so much that he brought us life together, made us one with Christ. As Christians we have a special status; we are to be channels through whom God's gifts to us may be shown to the world. These are the great and life-sustaining gifts God pours upon us. Repent - Believe - Be filled with God's Grace.

Lift to Christ - not animal sacrifice or self loathing; not by giving up, but by looking up at the Christ, risen from the Cross on which he bore our sin, in true repentance - metanoia.

Then, having received the grace of absolution from a God whose mercy never ends, offer your feet. Move into the world of cruel realities with compassion and God's love and blessing.

This is the Good News: we can repent. Even our failures are redeemed  and we are lifted up and given new life through the one resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.

July 13, 2014

Pentecost – Proper 10

Genesis 25: 19-34; Psalm 119: 105 - 112; Romans 8: 1 - 11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

This past Friday, I turned 39 nine years old. Someone recently told me that I look pretty good for my age. I think they said “You really do look good for being 48 years old.” Age is a funny thing. A person that I used to work with at another church would tell everybody who asked her how old she was, that she was ten years older than her true age. If she was 57, she would tell people that she was 67. And people would always say, “Terry, you look so young, how do you do it?”

As our bodies age, there seems to be ever increasing pressure for us to make ourselves look younger. Billions of dollars are spent every year in an attempt to convince us that hair color treatments, make up, plastic surgery will help us to successfully ward of our inevitable demise. How interesting humans are – as children, many of us wanted nothing more than to grow up, and once grown up, we want nothing more than to reclaim our youth once again.

But a face lift, or for middle aged guys a new red corvette, do not obscure the fact that our bodies simply do not last. The ancient Greeks understood this. In their understanding, the body was something temporary, something that would one day be discarded upon our death. Because the body would age and one day be no more, what really mattered to the Greeks was not the body, because it was impermanent, but rather the Soul. The soul, Greeks believed, was immortal, far greater than the aging body that contained it. In their understanding, when a person died, it was just the body that gave out, but the soul lived on eternally. 

This belief strongly influenced the Apostle Paul, the author of our reading from Romans today, of which we heard a portion read this morning. In Romans, Paul writes that Christians no longer live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit of God.” Did you catch that? Paul 

is using that body and spirit language. But it also seems that Paul is somewhat hostile to the idea of the body. Listen to some of his words from our reading from Romans: “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” and elsewhere “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” What is Paul talking about?

When Paul speaks of the “flesh,” he is not talking about the body (our skin and bones). When Paul uses the word “flesh” in Romans, he is talking about a human life that has no contact with the life giving Spirit of God. In Paul’s writing “flesh” is not skin, rather Paul is describing a person who has chosen to live a life without God. A life without Spirit, a life without Soul. Such a life is primarily concerned with just physical stuff. This is a way of life many people choose, which helps to explain why the world is the way it is.

If we choose this life, a life as Paul calls “of the flesh” it means we are choosing a life where all that matters is ourselves, our resources, our money, our time. This kind of life, Paul writes, is not really life at all. It is a path of death, that no sportscar, facelift, or mansion can hide. Fortunately, Paul reminds us that there is another way. We can choose the Spirit. We can choose God, we can choose abundance rather than scarcity. A spirit-filled life is a generous life, bathed in forgiveness. It is a life in which death is broken. The life of the Spirit, Paul writes, is a joyful life, because with the Spirit of God within you, there is nothing that you lack.

This is the life that is worth living. But even if we choose the life of the Spirit, we will still age and one day we will still die. But we must forget that in our baptism, we already have died to the life of the flesh, and reborn into the life of the Spirit. Those baptized are experiencing right now the beginning of eternal life. And because we are in the midst of eternal life, age no longer matters. It’s a number, that’s all, because in the life of the Spirit, we will never age. You can be 21 as long as you want! AMEN.