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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Chosenness: Part II

2 Samuel 11:1-15
Ephesians 3:14-21
     Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Remember just two weeks ago when Sylvia preached, talking about David’s delighted, joyful, exuberant response to chosenness, to being the one God had picked from obscurity to lead the people of Israel? Well, apparently the party’s over, because his behavior in today’s lesson is about as low as a person can go. It’s spring, which, as everyone knows, is the time when kings go out to battle. Good kings, that must be, or other kings…but not this king; David has sent his commanders and armies out to fight while he relaxes with a beer and a good book on the roof of his penthouse. When he rouses himself for a little stroll, he catches sight of lovely Bathsheba and decides she will be his, at least for an afternoon of pleasure.  And, indeed, she is, though the pleasure probably was only his; it's hard to say no to a king regardless of your own preferences. But then Bathsheba ends up pregnant. No problem, thinks David; I’ll just get her husband Uriah back from battle, he’ll be overjoyed to see her, and he’ll never know the baby isn’t his. It never occurs to David that Uriah might be a man of honor, so he’s shocked when instead of going home to enjoy his wife’s company—or “wash his feet” as the scripture puts it—Uriah spends the night sleeping at the house of his commander in chief, knowing that, unlike David, he couldn’t live with himself if he relaxed while others were sacrificing themselves in battle.  David gives it another shot the next night, getting Uriah drunk in the hopes that he’ll forget his ethics and succumb to desire for Bathsheba, but no go; once again Uriah stays away from home. What’s a cheating, heartless king to do? Well, in David’s case, it’s to send Uriah back to battle, have Joab the commander put him in the front ranks, and then have the whole army pull back from him so that he’s slaughtered on the spot. There, that little problem is resolved…  Sylvia warned us that this story took an ugly turn, and it appears that what David decides to do with his chosenness is treat it as carte blanche to do anything he pleases, morality and honor be damned.
     Yup, the Bible is full of stories to inspire us, strengthen our faith, guide us in God’s ways, and restore us to a relationship with the God who loves us! And: the Bible has once-good people doing bad things and once-bad people doing good things. There really should be nothing surprising about that. Rape and conspiracy to murder are in here because they're in our world. Gross abuse of power falls in the category of nothing new under the sun. You know from my preaching that I'm a huge believer in the capacity of humans--who are created in the image of God--to act like it, to live out love and justice, forgiveness and mercy, to live into our chosenness. However, we also sin--we deliberately make wrong choices that have devastating consequences for others and for our own souls--and that's been the case since almost the beginning of time too.
     Here's one of the intriguing parts: if we'd kept reading to the end of the chapter about David and Bathsheba, we would've heard that after all this horribleness and a period of mourning for Uriah, David marries Bathsheba; still, "the thing David had done displeased the Lord." So now David is off the "good with God" list, right? Well, not really. In subsequent chapters, the child of this first encounter with Bathsheba dies, but their next one is none other than Solomon. And besides Solomon being a pretty good guy in his own right, when you keep tracing that line of David and Bathsheba through Solomon and down the generations, you get to none other than Jesus. That's Matthew's version, at least; if you follow Luke's, it looks a bit different but still matches up with David being the ancestor of Joseph, who is as close to a Dad here on earth as you get for Jesus. So the man who delighted God, then displeased God, who had within him both brilliance and evil, humility and a vast excess of pride and power, this same chosen man becomes the patriarch of the house of David and the progenitor of our Lord and Savior. How's that for a twist?
     I think the key is how we understand being chosen. Since God chooses you, then only God gets to un-choose you...and the God whose arms are spread wide on the cross to embrace us all doesn't do that. God doesn't call us because we're spectacularly gorgeous or amazingly clever or Olympic caliber athletes. The field would be very narrow if God only picked people who approach perfection, and David certainly wouldn't have made the cut. Being chosen isn't dependent upon my qualities, but upon God's. God chooses us because God loves us and has a dream for us, a place for each of us within the story of the redemption of God's relationship with all humanity.
     It sounds unbelievable, because this isn't the way the world we're used to works, where scarcity and competition and getting voted off the island are the rule, or at the very least those who mess up--which would be all of us--pay the price. One day you're in; the next day you're out. I think I like God's way better. If we can just wrap our minds around it, if we can learn and believe that we are chosen, forever, for God.
     For this, I pray with the apostle Paul as he wrote in his letter to the people of Ephesus:  "Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. "


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Away from the shadows and into the darkness

Mark 6:30- 34 , Pr.11

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow--
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball
And he sometimes gets so little that there's none of him at all.
                         ~Robert Louis Stevenson

     Back in January, I started running. More accurately, I started walking interspersed with a little bit of jogging; now, 6.5 months later, I'm up to 30 minutes of a slow but steady run on the Temple City High School track 3 times a week. In the summer heat, I'm going later in the day, and as it gets dark, very bright stadium lights go on for the soccer teams practicing on the field.
     Last Thursday night, because I tend to be very bored when I run, I got to watching my own shadow on the dirt track. (Yes, I'm easily amused!) The cool thing is that whereas we're accustomed to having a single shadow during the day, when running on an oval outside a set of high parallel lights, you get more. Along the long sides of the track, I had two or three; around the curves, I counted as many as 5. (Yes, I undoubtedly look sort of odd jogging while trying to turn around and count my own shadows; however, that's not the only thing that makes me look strange while running, so I'll live with it.) Some are at least half again as long as I am tall, others are short and stocky; there are clear and crisp ones, and faint, barely visible ones. And of course, as I move around the track and the lights, they keep changing. Only when I step into the darkness, away from the lights and activity and noise of the field, can I be separate from my shadows.
     Those shadows are like the roles in my life. I'm daughter, spouse, mom, sister, priest, friend, neighbor, chaplain, employee, jogger, and more. I'm sure you can come up with your own list! At any given moment, those roles may change in magnitude and clarity, but there are always at least a few of them in evidence. That's often good, but on occasion I want to shed them all; I feel like my roles are stuck to me like shadows rather than being part of me. And when I become overwhelmed by the demands, or by confusion about priorities, or by how to do what I'm called to do, maybe my best reaction is to step into the darkness for a bit, to a place where I can be me, where I can reclaim my primary identity as God's beloved. A simple, silent place.
     Perhaps that's what Jesus is doing at the start of today's gospel. He and his disciples have been crazy busy, pulled in multiple directions as healers, nurturers, miracle workers, demon banishers, and teachers, to say nothing of their commitments to the families and communities they've left behind. They've barely had time to eat, and Jesus knows they desperately need a break from all the demands and to spend a little quality time with him. Deserted places, wildernesses, have a long tradition in scripture; they're barren of people and resources, but they tend to be rich with God's presence...and so Jesus calls them to go there with him to rest and be restored.
     The idea of rest sounds like such a relief to me. Not just sleeping in, or eating out rather than cooking, or even a vacation, but truly resting, which is probably a state of mind and spirit more than of body. This kind of rest is a way of stepping away from the roles and rules that whisper--or yell--in our ear, saying, "You have to do this. You can't forget that. They're counting on you. They want you. They need you. You must say yes, step it up! Are you sure you're up to it?" The irony of these shadow voices is that they don't even have to be current; we readily keep hearing them from relationships and tasks long past. So imagine cutting loose from all of those for a bit, going to a deserted place where the shadows disappear rather than simply changing, and resting.
     This doesn't happen without deliberate intent. There's always something "better" or more compelling to do, even if it's sleeping or playing on the computer, doing laundry or returning phone calls and emails. I'm not saying those things are bad, or that any of our roles are unimportant; it just means that if we're going to turn aside to rest, we'll have to pick that over something else. We need to choose to step out of the bright lights and away from the shadows that seem to follow us everywhere. But if we're to be Jesus's disciples, we've got to have time to get away from all those things that cling to us so closely and to be renewed by the Spirit. That relationship has to come first, before the doing of ministry, before all the people and tasks and worries and stuff that lay claim to our time.
     This is one of those theories that sounds easy from the pulpit and is in fact very hard to pull off in real life. Even Jesus and his disciples only got the time in the boat before every one and every thing caught up with them! So, I'm going to ask you to make a start this morning. You received an index card when you came in; you can get that out now. I'd like you to take a minute to think, and then on one side write something that at least once this week you aren't going to do, in the interest of finding time for rest. Maybe you'll turn off your cell phone or walk away from the TV or computer for a bit one evening. Perhaps you'll let the dishes sit overnight or the dog hair collect rather than cleaning up one day. It could be not looking at or thinking about your to do list for a specific time, not setting an appointment, saying no to a request for a commitment. Whatever it may be, write that on one side.
     On the other side, write a way that you will rest this week, that you will physically or mentally step out of the lights and away from your shadows and go to a deserted place. You could sit outside in the evening to hear the summer sounds. You might read a good book for no other reason than because you enjoy it. Listen to a piece of music you love. Talk to God and wait for an answer, which might come in many ways, including silence. Lie on your bed and count your blessings with true joy. Whatever you choose, let it be specific...and let it be enough; this isn’t supposed to be one more burden! Take the card with you, see if you follow through, be pleased if you can and gentle with yourself if you can't. If you're so inclined, say something about your experience in the comments on Facebook once I've posted the sermon, or email me about it, or share with a friend.
     The shadows that form and disappear, grow and shrink, become bold and then faint aren't generally bad or good; they're simply part of our run through life. Listen to Jesus, though, and when he calls you to go with him to a deserted place, turn aside, step into the quiet of the dark, and receive his gifts of rest and renewal.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons on Chosenness

 The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney     7/15/12
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

     Imagine for a moment what it would have been like…perhaps you were a merchant, a seller of cotton cloth, or a slave who toiled in the service of a Roman aristocrat.  You might have been a woman with no rights of property or of movement, or an orphaned child struggling to survive on the streets.  Somehow miraculously you came to hear the story of Jesus and no matter who you are, what station in life, what past sins you’ve committed, what shame or humiliations you’ve born, you have been brought here to the waters of baptism.  You have washed and prayed and fasted in preparation for this moment when you would enter the living waters, cross over from death to life, be anointed with oil in the sign of the cross, and promised that with this water and this marking you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Forever.
     You hear said over you and in praise of God this hymn of praise and blessing from Ephesians that declares to you…you who have known so much sorrow, lived through so much pain, suffered such shame, committed so many deeds you now regret with all your heart….You who had no family or station in life and you who gave up family and station to come to these waters.  You have each and all been chosen.  You have been adopted.  You have found a place of home and belonging and sanctuary here in this holy community with these holy people.  You too have been chosen to be a holy child of God destined to help fulfill God’s dream of peace, of healing and reconciliation not just for yourself but for the whole world.  Imagine in that moment with the water and the oil, and the bread and the wine.  With the circle of love and acceptance and belonging closed around you and encircling you….imagine what it means to hear, “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.  In him you also were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance!”
     What do you do with that?  What do you do with the promise of your own chosenness?  What do you do with an outrageous, enormous, extravagant, magnanimous inheritance of profound blessing placed into your hands simply for the taking? 
     Holy Scripture is of course an answer to just that question.  It is the unfolding story of how over and over again human beings who had been chosen and blessed by God chose to respond to their own chosenness.  We see it with Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel, with Abraham and Sarah, and with the Israelites brought out of Egypt.  We see it in the kings of Israel and in God’s chosen prophets.  We see it in John the Baptist’s response to God’s call and in Jesus’ response following his baptism. 
     Today’s lessons are all three stories of what God’s fascinating cascading cast of characters have chosen to do in response to their own chosenness.  Shall we take a look together?
     To recap. David recently of sheepherding fame gets chosen by God through the prophet Nathan to be the heir to the throne of Israel.  Returning from battle and crowned king he decides to set up his own royal capital in Jerusalem for strategic reasons and decides to move the ark of the covenant to the capital to cement the importance of this new center in the eyes of the people.  So he gathers together 30000 of his finest, his chosen warriors and together in celebration and praise they carry the ark of the covenant—which you all know about from Indiana Jones movies—from Hebron to Jerusalem.  And chosen, royal David, but recently of sheepherding fame, joins in the festivities, leads them in fact…taking off his royal robes and dancing for all his worth in the ecstatic dervishes of his Bedouin community wearing only an apron ..totally to the chagrin of his royal wife Michal, youngest daughter of the now deceased King Saul, who finds his cavorting almost naked with soldiers and peasants, even if done in religious ecstasy as vulgar and pedestrian and ill becoming the king of an important land.  But David has not yet been co-opted by his own power and is still respectful of his chosenness and responds to Michel that there is no more fitting response to this blessed station in life than pure unrestrained open hearted, life filled, love filled, baring all, praise of God.  (If only David had remembered all that down the road..but that will come on later Sundays in later lessons with different wives. ) Some scholars suggest that this moment is a turning point in the relationship between David and Michel and by either David’s design or God’s design, Michel’s pretentious, haughty, privileged, elitist response to this moment guarantees the end of blessing for her life and the end of the line of Saul because she for whom David was willing to kill 100 Philistines as a bride price bears no children for  David.
+Lesson One on Chosenness
     The appropriate response is open hearted gratitude and when you stop being grateful and start expecting or demanding that you be chosen….you’re pretty much promised the blessings will evaporate…So never, ever take an upgrade for granted.
+Lesson Two on Chosenness
     When what is in your heart is love and gratefulness there’s no such thing as over sharing.
+Lesson Three
     If you get the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.
+Lesson Four
     When God gives you meat and bread and cakes with raisins…share them with everyone else so everyone can come to the party.
     And now we press on…
     As the story goes and today is not the day to poke holes in the historicity of this story as Mark has told it…Herod has not only been given the royal life…he has also been given a holy prophet to help guide him through that chosen life.  But just because there’s someone to tell you how to respond to chosenness doesn’t mean you’re smart enough to listen to them when they’re talking to you.  So Herod takes his own personal prophet and puts him in jail with the hope that that will silence him.  Why you would want to silence someone you truly believe, as Herod does, is telling you exactly what God wants from you is unclear to me….but I think it has something to do with taking one’s chosenness as a right not a gift.
+Lesson 5 on Chosenness
     When God offers help, take it! In whatever form it comes.
     So John the Baptist is in jail because as the story goes, Herod has stolen his brother’s wife which is not an activity God condones in anyone but most certainly not in kings or tetrarchs and John is not keeping the secret.  And here a new scantily clad (we can only assume) person decides to dance for the sheer joy of it—namely Herod’s daughter.  Herod who has already shown himself to have little regard for his own blessed state is so enthralled by her enchanting gyrations before his esteemed guests that he offers her anything --up to half his kingdom. 
+Lesson 6 on Chosenness
     Don’t squander what you’ve been given because once you blow it, you never get it back.
     But here’s where we see again that just because you’re chosen doesn’t mean you’re wise.  Salome who has won through her artistic prowess the prize of a lifetime, wastes her inheritance, an inheritance which she has no right to because of her gender, but which she has indeed been offered none-the-less…she wastes her inheritance on a petty, foolish, ego driven vicious act of vengeance. 
+Lesson 7 on Chosenness
     When we have been chosen and the gifts are laid into our hands, there is nothing that prevents us from using them for evil instead of for good.  Our own greed, our own pettiness, our own self centeredness, our own lack of self-respect, our own vindictiveness, our own short sightedness…they don’t disappear because we’ve been chosen.  And it is only when we look to our own best selves and listen deeply for the Spirit to show us the better way that we find out what it truly means to live our lives as the chosen ones, the royal priesthood, the Holy, beloved, graced, and blessed people of God.
     I think we’d all like to believe that we’re more like David than Michel, more like John the Baptist than Herod or Herodias or Salome…but the test of that is in our choices, in the way we live our lives, in the voices we heed, in the dances we dance, and in the rewards we long to receive for our efforts. 
+And the last Lesson on Chosenness from Ephesians?
     If you want to make it count.  If you want it to last.  If you want to know what it is that was placed into your hands and on your forehead and into your heart at your baptism.  If you want to know what God has done for you, then live every day as a chosen one of God giving away as much as has been given to you…And in the sharing and the giving your inheritance will be not only realized and preserved, but multiplied.
     “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.  In him you also were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance!”

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Lighten Up

Pr.9, Yr B
Mark 6:1-13

Jesus's advice to his disciples on what to take, or not take, when traveling sounds almost like perfect counsel to flyers today: dump the money and anything else that could set off the metal detectors, skip even a carry-on bag because you may have to gate check it, don't wear two tunics lest you be pulled aside for a random strip search, and wear sandals for easy on and off as you remove your footwear to go through security! The only mismatch is the part about taking a staff; I know, from the experience of trying to get one onto a plane without the risk of checking it, that you're better off leaving that home too...

As I tried to understand the message for me in these verses, and what shedding all that gear was about, the travel-light model morphed into something quite different. I started thinking about gardening and yard work. Our small vegetable-growing endeavor is simple and close to organic; we pick weeds by hand, use a natural pesticide, and mostly allow nature to take its course among our tomatoes, corn, apples, and melons. The rest of our yard, though, is not nearly so simple. First off, there are the power tools: the electric hedger, gas weed whacker and mower, the power blower. Added to that are a large number of hand tools, from loppers to rakes, shovels to clippers; hanging on hooks, they cover a fair swath of wall space in the garage. And though I have mixed feelings about the lack of stewardship this may represent, we combat a variety of problems with Round-Up, chemical fertilizers, and spreadable weed killers. All of this represents our attempts to rein in the wild, unruly side of nature where it comes into conflict with our ideal of a tidy yard.

The irony is that, for all our assortment of equipment and potions, we're not all that successful. The weeds still sprout where we don't want them, the grass and ivy grow faster than we can keep up, the lawn persists in dying in spots because the sprinklers are always getting messed up, and the roses get diseases for which I'm unprepared and need deadheading far faster than I can tend to them. Chaos is always just around the corner, and nothing sold at Home Depot can protect us from that.

Isn't a lot of our life like this? We surround ourselves with stuff--sometimes literal and visible, other times less tangible but just as viscerally present--and we hope it will keep the borders of our lives trim and neat, or protect us from the dangers of dead spots and broken parts, or be a barrier against fears that grow unbidden and unwelcome.

Jesus knew this. Fully human, he was no stranger to our concerns, and though these worries may have manifested themselves a bit differently 2000 years ago, I imagine that their true nature was pretty much the same. He was sending his friends out on a scary, lonely task for which they were not particularly well suited nor prepared. And yet, instead of taking them on a week long training retreat, or giving them a copy of Discipleship for Dummies, or at least letting them pack a favorite teddy bear, he simply paired them up, commanded them to leave everything behind, instructed them on what to do if they got the sort of unfriendly reception to which he'd been subject, and gave them authority over unclean spirits...then, "Adios!"

Really, what kind of leader does that? Or, perhaps more to the point, why would a good leader do that? It's like setting them up for failure...and yet they succeeded. We're told they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. Therein may lie the method in Jesus's madness: if, despite having almost all reasonable supports stripped from them, they were able to fulfill their mission, it couldn't be attributed to anything they had, nor any special talents or knowledge with which they were endowed. The only explanation could be God's power. Not until they were completely vulnerable would the gifts of God's Spirit be fully revealed.

I'll admit to thinking fairly often, "I can't do that..I don't know how." Or "This wouldn't work for me because..." Or "We don't have enough [fill in the blank] to do that." Maybe I'm right; maybe the challenge is insurmountable, very possibly I don't know how, and quite possibly we are lacking the resources to succeed on our own. It might even be dangerous. But where I go astray is in imagining that more tools, more treasure, more talents, and more time might make the difference. Think of the Huntington Gardens, with all their money and some of the most skilled horticulturists in the world and a battalion of workers...and it still (thank goodness) is never perfect. God's goal for us isn't perfection in what we do, either. God wants us to reveal God's glory--not our own--in the world, and to work with, not instead of, God.

We're never going to know enough, have all the right tools, and be able to protect ourselves well enough to control chaos and banish evil; if those are the requirements, we're done for. Good for us, then, that we're not on our own. Jesus is already on the job!

Not having tools and tricks doesn't set us up for failure; exactly the opposite: it pushes us toward the One who has been and still is restoring the fullness of creation and who gives us the gifts to participate in that process. Sometimes we need most of all to lay down our excuses and just get our hands dirty and our feet wet. I can't eliminate the problem of homelessness, but I can keep it at bay for a few people by fixing a salad for Door of Hope or helping pack lunches for Union Station. I'm not likely to memorize the whole Bible, but I can learn a few verses that help me put down deeper roots of faith. I can't restore anyone to wholeness, but I can take time listen to the story of someone who's hurting. I don't know how to share God's love with everyone, but I can probably figure out how to demonstrate it to a few people, or to let God's forgiveness touch me in new ways. And if those don't work, so what? We can try again, in a different way…and again, and again. As long as we remember that it's about God, not about us, we'll be okay and we'll be successful in the ways that really count.

Do you know those words from A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?:
Did we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing
Were not the right man on our side
The man of God's own choosing

and then:
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through him who with us sideth

So go forth into the world, and rejoice in the power of the Spirit!