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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Seeing the Unseen

Proper 21, Yr. C
Luke 16:19-31

Yesterday morning, while still pondering my sermon, I drove 6 high school students to a meeting on the westside. Spending a few hours on the 10 Freeway isn’t my idea of a fun way to start the weekend, so I decided I could at least make it productive by engaging in a little multi-tasking. With Stephen’s okay, I asked my passengers two questions: first, who—both locally and globally—do we not see, do we overlook, just as the rich man spent a lifetime overlooking Lazarus?; and second, is there any danger or loss to us in not noticing some people, or is it just a benign oversight?

Before I tell you their responses, let me say that even if I hadn’t accomplished some sermon research, I still would’ve truly enjoyed the trip; it’s easy for us to forget how perceptive, well-informed, funny, smart, and caring teenagers can be. Maybe their insightful answers to these particular questions arose in part from the fact that they are often among the people who aren’t seen…and we miss out on a lot as a result.

My riders suggested, very candidly, that among the people they overlook in their lives are secretaries and custodians, those who provide the goods and services they use, the special ed students at their school, farm workers, and people who live in less-developed agrarian nations. As one observed, he can name most of the countries in Europe but hardly any of those in Africa. How would you answer that question? Who do you see past or walk by without notice every day? I know there are too many to count in my life.

One of the teens pointed out in the course of our conversation that that’s part of the issue: we have to use some filters or we'd be overloaded, though some individuals do seem to have a particular gift for reaching out to more people than most of us. But it merits some thought to consider the apportionment of power, wealth, or influence between those we overlook and those who readily capture our attention, and to wonder what that says about our own selves.

In answer to my second question, about whether we actually lose something or are hurt by not taking notice of people, or if it’s simply too bad but no big deal, these young people offered some great insights. They acknowledged that the people we don't see are often the ones who really know what's going on, as, for example, the secretaries at school vs. the principal. Even more significantly, they suggested that the people we don't notice might have information that’s important to us, and that in getting to know them, we will better understand how the world works. Wow! That sure sounds to me like a big part of what Jesus and scripture say about the kingdom of God, that those whom the world considers weak and foolish and unimportant may understand God’s loving mercy and God’s desires for us far better than those who have worldly power and prestige.

After I’d been thinking about all of this, I learned that the House of Bishops—the gathering of all the bishops in the Episcopal Church—had written a pastoral letter during their meeting in Phoenix last week. Pastoral letters are not intended to provide absolute answers to questions of theology and faith; bishops write them in their role as teachers and leaders, with the hope that their words will encourage conversation and wrestling with issues that affect our lives. Thus, the request is generally made that the letters be shared with congregations, as we’ve done here in the past.

This particular pastoral letter is on the topic of immigration and our treatment of those who cross borders without proper documentation. Talk about people who are often invisible to us! And so, as you listen—and it’s dense, so you can go back to it via a link on the blog on our website—I invite you to consider not only the immediate issues, but also what we can discover from this particular group of people who are without power, without wealth, without status, and yet from whom we may learn to better understand our world and our God.
[The text of the letter is here.]
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~Book of Common Prayer, p. 823

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

House of Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Immigration

On September 21st, at the conclusion of the Episcopal House of Bishops' meeting in Phoenix, the bishops issued a pastoral letter on immigration based on our baptismal call to respect the dignity of every human being. The bishops acknowledge the complexity of the issues involved while encouraging individual and national responses that treat every person as a beloved child of God. You can read the full text of the pastoral letter here.

The bishops also developed a theological resource paper on migration and immigration, which is available here. Neither the letter nor the resource paper is intended to be a final, conclusive statement; their purpose is to draw us into reflection and conversation about a subject that's currently (and historically) of great concern to many people. Read what the bishops have to say, do your own thinking and praying and exploring, discuss your ideas and questions with others, and consider how your faith calls you to respond.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Labor Day Sunday

While on vacation this summer, I acquired a hammock. My neighbor was getting rid of hers and I’ve always wanted one, so I toted it into our yard and hung it between two trees. I spent quite a few of the remaining hours of my vacation rocking gently under a soothing canopy of mottled green with surprisingly blue sky in the background, a pillow under my head and, during this unusually cool summer, a light blanket across my lap. Since returning to work, I’ve still been stretching out in it on an almost daily basis, sometimes reading, often napping, frequently day-dreaming as my mind goes…well, I’m not sure where it goes, but it’s somewhere relaxing and renewing and different. I haven’t yet set up a mini-fridge and microwave next to it, but the thought has occurred to me!

There’s something about a hammock that makes very clear the boundary between rest and labor. Due to the shape and dynamics of one, it’s difficult to do anything that even resembles work except possibly talking on the phone. I can’t sit up enough to use my laptop or to write. I can read, but if it’s a book that taxes my mind, my brain goes on strike and promptly falls asleep. There’s not enough flat space to spread out papers for a project. Nope, hammocks were made for refreshment.

I fear that in our culture, we’re blurring the distinction between work and rest so much as to make them often indistinguishable. Cell phones, smart phones, Wi-Fi and 3G, e-mail and Facebook, iPads and netbooks have all helped turn work, being on call—whatever our work may be—into an activity that stretches from rising to retiring. When it comes to technology, you could categorize me as a “slow adopter”: I’m not the first on the block by any means, but I’m also not a Luddite. Part of that is a failure to see why I should upgrade something that’s functioning just fine. But another part is that I don’t want to be “on,” literally or figuratively plugged in, every single hour of the day and night. I know that sometimes I just need to rest, and when I do that, I return to work—at church, with my family, with other projects—better able to function effectively myself and with a greater appreciation for what everyone else is doing too.

There’s solid and explicit biblical precedent for getting our rest; even God thought it necessary to take a break on the 7th day, and honoring the sabbath as a day apart is right there in the 10 Commandments. But it goes deeper than that. Scripture reminds us, in today’s 1st and 2nd readings and many other places, of the honor of doing a job well, of the importance of using our gifts and valuing the contributions of others. But that takes focus, and I simply don’t believe that level of intentionality is possible 24/7; no one can keep going all the time.

Assuming that’s correct, then it’s essential that we be conscious of having some sense of dividing work from not-work, of creating “hammock time” for ourselves. Doesn’t have to be in an actual hammock, though I can certainly recommend that; you may find the same sort of separation from everyday demands in the garden or workshop or kitchen, in a bath full of bubbles or a hike in the mountains, reading a book—yes, even on a Kindle!—or taking a nap. However you do it, that kind of renewal creates pleasure in and of itself in the moment and it often restores joy to what we do with the rest of our time. Having some place in our lives where we clearly distinguish labor from rest honors both of them.

As we value our own work and its boundaries, I think we get better at extending that same respect to others, acknowledging the ways in which their labor enriches our life and supporting them in taking time for renewal. Looked at this way, it’s a variation of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Because of the interconnectedness of our lives, what I do for myself has an impact on you, and the support I give you affects my own life as well.

Perhaps that’s why Labor Day has persisted for 120 years, past its origins as a recognition of tradespeople and union workers and beyond its enjoyment as a Monday holiday. Celebrating this holiday is, in many ways, surprisingly counter-cultural, because staying busy is practically a national value, and leisure is often mistakenly understood to be a first step on the journey toward slothfulness. But for this one day, as a people, we realize that it’s appropriate to give thanks for the ways in which others contribute to our own life, and to give as many people as possible a day for relaxation, for distinguishing labor from recreation, re-creation.

So treasure what Labor Day represents, and enjoy…truly, enter into joy…tomorrow! No matter what your labor is at this point in your life, take some time to set it down if at all possible—even if it’s simply shutting your eyes for a few minutes and allowing yourself to dream about something different—and regain a sense of the border between work and rest and the value of each. Then, with thanksgiving, help someone else do the same, living out the opening phrase of today’s collect: “Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives…”

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Lost and Found

Lost and Found
1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

My daughters and I were doing some belated school supply shopping this past week. Sophie needed some art pencils, so we went to the art supply store in Old Town. I sent Sophie off to find her pencils, and Lucy and I went in separate directions to browse. We all agreed to meet back at the cash register in a few minutes. I found Sophie standing in the line after I'd satisfied my need to look at cool pens. She was checking out the erasers and pencils near the register, and we waited our turn. When the cashier invited us forward, the gentle man behind us barked, "There's a LINE HERE!" I hadn't understood that Sophie was just looking at the merchandise near the line. I thought she had been waiting in the line. So we had, in fact, cut in front of the barking man without knowing it. I apologized to him, and waved him forward, and as he took his rightful place at the register, he scolded the cashier for not having paid closer attention. We waved the next few customers forward as well, until we sure it really was our turn. I found myself, as we waited, watching the barking man at the register. His face was set with anger and disgust. It was a face of hate. I couldn't help wondering how he got there? Had he had a particularly bad day? Or was his face always calcified with hate? I had to look away after awhile. He scared me.

The face of hate has been on display this week. And it has been alive in our memories. Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of 9/11. As we remember and grieve again the loss of some 3,000 lives on that day, we continue to be frightened and appalled and devastated by the hatred that would lead people to such abominable, violent acts.

The face of hate showed up on a pastor in Florida this week as well, who threatened to burn the sacred texts of fellow seekers and lovers of God. Wasn't it hate that led to such a threat? It looks like hate to me.

Political cartoonist Mike Luckovich offered a look at hate this week. A parishioner sent his cartoon to Al, and Al passed it along to me. He draws a globe, and on one side, an outline of the U.S., and on the other side, an outline of the Mideast. On the U.S. side, a woman and her child sit on a couch facing a television screen, and on the television are two angry middle-eastern faces holding plackards. One reads "Infedels" and the other reads "Death to America." The woman is saying to her child, "Not all Muslims are hateful..." Sitting on couch on the other Mideast side of the globe are a woman and her child. They are also looking at a television screen on which are two angry American faces. On holds a plackard reading "No Mosques!" and the other holds a plackard that says "Burn the Koran!" This mother is saying to her child, "Not all Christians are hateful..."

Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, in response to a recent rash of anti-Muslim frenzy is quoted as saying, "This is not America. America was not built on hate."

My response to this hatred, all of it, is to say NO to it. It is our call to say no to hate in all its forms. It is our gospel obligation. But how am I saying NO to this hate with my actions? I notice that I respond to hate by distancing myself from it. It frightens me. I am offended and frightened by the man at the art supply store. I am offended and frightened by religious extremists, whatever their faith, even and sometimes especially my own. I turn away from those faces. Their fierceness, their power seem impenetrable. The people who spew such hatred seem to me to be a lost cause.

Paul was such a guy. Paul had deep hatred for all Christians, and wreaked havoc for them. In the book of Acts, leading up to the story of his conversion, it says he was "breathing threats and murder." Hate was the very air he breathed. I imagine his face looked a lot like the faces we've been seeing and remembering this week. Listen to Paul's own description of himself, pre-conversion, his anti-resume: "I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence." I would have been afraid of Paul in his Saul days. I would have wanted to get as far away from him as possible. I would have looked forward to his demise. I would have him a lost cause.

But what does God do with Paul? God moves towards him. God goes after him. God looks at his anti-resume, his offensive, violent, destructive life, and interrupts it with blinding love. Where we see lost cause, God sees lost lamb. Where we can see only sinner, God sees through the sinner to the person God made, someone of immense value, God's precious child. Who but God could have wanted Paul? It's stunning, isn't it, the way God sees. Oh, to have eyes like that. To have a heart like that. God wanted Paul, and God lit the lamp, and swept the house and searched carefully until Paul was found. And look at Paul's life after that. He spent the rest of it loving with the same intensity with which he had hated. He spent seeking and fighting for a finding the lost, and welcoming them in.

We see the same approach in the gospel today. Jesus is having a meal, whether as host or guest, we're not sure. But he's sitting at a table surrounded by tax collectors and sinner. And on the periphery of the gathering, pharisees and scribes are complaining loudly that Jesus is eating with these lost causes. Jesus hears their grumblings, and he responds with stories that challenge their view of his dinner companions.

My favorite is the story of the lost coin. A woman has ten silver coins, but one of them is lost, and she is frantic to find it. Today's stand-in for the silver coin would be the lost cellphone, or perhaps more universal, the lost keys. You know this feeling, don't you, when you've lost your keys. It's crazy. You're thrown off your center, the world comes to a screching halt, you're in a complete panick. The keys could be right in front of you in your search, but you're so crazed you can't see them. Your heart races. You rush around like a maniac. It's insane. And when you find them, it really does feel like your whole life has been given back to you.

Jesus says this is the way it is with God when looking for one who is lost. This is the kind of energy God gives to the search. This is the picture God paints of the search for the ones we want to hate, the ones we've given up on, the ones we can't imagine ever being redeemed, the ones we wouldn't want to be redeemed.

This is such radical vision. I don't see like God sees, most of the time. But I want to. I want to learn. I want to practice it. And I want to pay attention to the hatred in my own life, my own heart. It probably won't ever be as ugly or as obvious as the hate on display this week, but it is there. It sneaks around and sometimes ekes its way out. So I will pay attention. And I will be grateful that God will come after me, like God did for Paul, like the woman looking for her coin. God will come after me like that when I am lost in hate. And I will be grateful that God won't rest until I am found. AMEN.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Take 5 To Save Lives - 9/10/10

Every 16 minutes, a person dies by suicide. Maybe you've known and loved one of those people, or perhaps you've come close to suicide yourself. Today is World Suicide Prevention Day; you can visit the Take 5 To Save Lives website to learn more about this campaign. Depression and suicidal thoughts are invisible, but by knowing warning signs, learning how to help, and talking about this often shunned topic, we can shine a light and make a difference.

Jan, at Yearning for God, posted here a thoughtful and personal reflection on suicide. Robin, at Desert Year, wrote for over a year of her pain, grief, anger, shock, and struggles with faith following her son's death by suicide; her blog includes excellent links and resources for those left behind after suicide. Should you ever find yourself or someone you know at risk for suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline has free and confidential help available 24 hours at day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Additionally, the clergy of Saint Mark's are available to listen and to offer care and support at any time if you find yourself in crisis.