Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Millenium Development Goals: a sermon for Lent 1C (Luke 4:1-13)

Four years ago I received a phone call from a colleague at St. Michaels. She was about to move to Virginia and wondered if we might take on the care of a single mom and her daughter. My friend said that she had helped this mom over the last few years, had many phone conversations and even visited her at her home; she was indeed a woman of legitimate needs. I, of course, said yes.

This woman is Dorothy and her daughter Shanika. We have, over these years, provided her with groceries, meals at Christmas and Thanksgiving, rent money on occasion, and help with her utilities. Dorothy is on disability for a back injury. Her husband was murdered some years ago. All of their extended family lives in Gary, Indiana or Mississippi.

When Shanika turned 16 her food stamps were cut by 50%, because she was now old enough to get a job. She has no car, is limited to public transportation, and limited in where she could look for a job. No one would hire her. I know how difficult it was for my sixteen year old daughter to find a job, and she had all the benefits of transportation. The only place that would hire my daughter at 16 was Steak and Shake. Most company policy require employees to be 17 or 18 so they can work late hours.

Last September, when Shanika turned 18, the government cut her food stamps completely, even though she was a senior in high school, and still unable to get a job. The older Shanika has gotten the more difficult it has become to feed and clothe her.

Despite our help, I get constant phone calls from Dorothy. Her needs are endless. And they are real needs. Some of these calls are out of sheer desperation; they haven’t eaten in two days. She’ll call me six, seven, eight times in a day.

And sometimes I have no means with which to help her. We over extended our peapod fund, buying her about a thousand dollars more in groceries than we had the funds to pay for. Still, we do what we can to help.

Shanika graduates in June. Dorothy hopes to move closer to family after the graduation.

This first Sunday of Lent we have been asked by the Presiding Bishop to consider the ONE Campaign and its focus on the Millennium Development Goals. The One Campaign is an effort by Americans to rally Americans with the goal of eradicating AIDS and global poverty. The ONE Campaign is a way for Americans to connect with and work toward The Millennium Goals. These goals were created by the United Nations and then adopted by various church organizations, including the Episcopal Church in our 2006 General Convention. The eight goals call upon people world wide, and especially us as people of faith, to do what we can to eliminate global poverty, hunger, and injustices to children and women. The important aspect is to remember that these injustices are not limited to foreign countries, but are found right here in own backyard.

A recent article on the front page of the Daily Herald pointed out just how many people in the northern and western suburbs are in need of food and assistance. Local food pantries are flooded with people seeking help to feed their families. Dorothy and Shanika are not anomalies; they are part of a growing need in our area.

Our gospel this morning points us to look at the temptations in life that pull us away from God and God’s desire for us:

The first temptation suggests that people can be appeased if their physical needs are met. Give them food and that’s enough. Jesus was hungry and the devil reminds him that all he needs to do is turn the stones into bread and he can have all the food he wants. This is what’s known as a “good temptation,” because it speaks a truth about God. God cares for us and for our needs, God will provide. The desert is a place where food does not grow, but Jesus has access to the amazing power of God, Jesus has come to fed God’s people.

But Jesus knows that this simple response is not the answer. Simply satisfying a physical need of hunger leaves people starving because it completely ignores the emotional, spiritual and moral dimensions of human need. It’s about relationships of truly caring which transform us. God comes into our hearts to transform us, to make us better people, to teach us about compassion. It is not enough that we just give Dorothy and Shanika food. I have tried to know her as a human being, to listen to her when she is desperate, to pray for her. It feels like so little to offer. Jesus calls us to be in relationship with one another. Years ago Dorothy wanted to come to church here. I tried to get someone to pick her up, but no one would…so, we have done what we could. We have fed her.

The second temptation, inviting Jesus to have control over all the kingdoms, is really about dividing power, dividing people one from another. It’s about focusing on outside issues as the source of the problem and failing to begin with looking at your self, your church, your community. One sure way to avoid working on the real problem is find ways to fight about other things. We all do this, we all find ways to be angry about everything but the one thing that really makes us mad. When we can focus on the real issue, the one that resides inside of us as individuals, then we can begin to work through the problem. In this second temptation Jesus refuses to do a powerplay on God. Jesus is a team player who focuses on how he can best do what God desires. Jesus focuses on his ministry of love and compassion.

The third temptation, throwing himself off the pinnacle and expecting the angels to bear him up, suggests that it is more important to have credentials and stature than it is to be a good human being. It suggests that we judge people by their wealth and not their substance. But the reality is we are called to be a people who care for all human beings equally. They dust of Ash Wednesday reminds us that every human being is ultimately made of the same substance. We are all just dust, it is where we have come from and where we will return. All the things we do in this life are just ornamentation, decoration, except for the acts of caring and compassion – Jesus did not care for making himself look important, he did care deeply for all people.

Jesus sees through all of these temptations as an effort to betray his true identity as the one who bears God’s love in the world, as the one who brings forth, in human form, the compassion of the God who created us.

Today, as we spend time thinking about and praying about the injustices of the world let’s ponder the ways we too can open our hearts to fullness of God’s love. To the ways we can become fully who God calls us to be. To the ways we can help eradicate poverty in some small way in our community. To the ways we can love others without judgment. To the ways we can walk in the footsteps of Christ, bring God’s love to the broken places of our world.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Transformed by the Gift of Love: Last Epiphany (Luke 9:28-36)

The movie Chocolate, one of my favorite, takes place in a small town in France. The town oozes tranquility…Life was peaceful because you knew what was expected of you, you knew what was right and what was wrong, and if you happened to forget, someone would remind you. The people trusted their leaders, especially the mayor, and he trusted the wisdom of past leader.

We soon come to understand that the tranquility is only a veneer masking what is really a rigid understanding of the values of tradition, family, and morality.

Into this town blows Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche and her young daughter. Vianne is wandering healer who follows the wind; she stays in a town just long enough to do her healing, and then when the wind blows a certain way, she moves again…

The wind is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit calling her to places that need her gifts of healing. Vianne’s special gift is making chocolate, and she has the gall to open a chocolate shop in the middle of Lent! She has an uncanny ability to see deep into a person and know their sorrow.

Her various chocolates, light and dark, sweet and semi sweet, filled or unfilled, hold the key to her healing, the right chocolate eaten by the right person begins the transformation.

Vianne does nothing by the book. She does nothing out of obligation, but everything out of love. It is Vianne’s encouragement that brings Josephine out of her abusive marriage. It is her encouragement that brings Armande together with her grandson. It is her encouragement that brings a widow of 30-some-years out of mourning and into a new relationship. And it is her presence that eventually moves the mayor to face the reality of his own broken life and the pleasures he’s denied himself for too long.

The town is transformed by her chocolate and her grace.

Today we stand on the precipice of Lent, which begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

Lent is traditionally a season in which we focus on what we will give up for Lent.

Will you give up chocolate? Will you give up sweets? Some people, who never go to church give things up for Lent – one year my mother gave up butter.

The idea behind the giving up is not to cause us undo suffering or denial or to enforce some rigid, but ultimately meaningless rule.

The idea is that the time of Lent is a season for us to take stock of our lives: what is important? What gives life meaning? How can we become better people by following the model of Christ and using his life as our example?

So, for some folks giving something up serves as a constant reminder to ponder this. Every time you find yourself longing for, or missing, what ever you give up, becomes an opportunity to ponder about what gives your life meaning.

You might ask yourself these questions:

Why do you need or want that something in your life? How does that something give your life meaning or enhance your life? What are your struggles as you strive to live with it? How do those struggles help you know yourself and your life better?

But, giving up something is not the only way to approach Lent. One can take on a discipline instead of giving up some food item. For instance you could choose to do the Daily Office of Morning Prayer and or Evening Prayer every day. You could choose to come to the Wednesday night Lenten supper and program that we share with St. John’s in Mt. Prospect.

This year we are going to gather for a light supper of soup and salad, watch a short DVD presentation called, “Living the Questions” which includes a panel discussion on some of the relevant questions of our faith,then break into small groups to have dessert and discuss the questions ourselves.

It should prove to be engaging and enlightening.

What ever you choose to do for Lent do so with the intent to learn something about yourself and your faith life.

In 1Cor Paul reminds us that we all have spiritual gifts to be shaped and formed and used.
But ultimately the most important gift is love. Lent is a season that invites us to ponder how we are loved and how we love others. And by this I mean: Lent is a season that invites us to find or make opportunities to love others with a radical kind of hospitality. It’s a season where we can choose to do something that challenges how we love. Radical love and radical hospitality challenge us to do something new, to move out of our comfortable places.

I have found it quite sad to read in the press how some of the primates are choosing to behave at their gathering in Tanzania. Because of the presence of our Presiding Bishop and the Presiding Bishop of Canada, a group of 7 primates from the Southern Hemisphere have refused to take communion at a common table. Oh, they were willing to come to the meeting, but they are not willing to be fully present. They are not willing to act from a place of grace and love. They are not even willing to consider how to be church in the image given to us in the Acts of the Apostles.

We will read from Acts every Sunday in the season of Easter. It gives us, if you will, the rest of Jesus’ story…In some ways this story begins today, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany…which is always celebrated with a reading of the Transfiguration of Christ –
pointing us to remember that he comes to change us not to keep us safe…

The season of Lent leads us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – where we come to see that a new thing happens – the disciples thought that the church of Christ was just for the Jews, but the Acts of the Apostles shows us quite clearly that the church is to be a new thing,

This new thing comes to us at Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the gift of radical love and hospitality. The church is to be a place of radical inclusive love that breaks down the barriers which confine us and limit God’s love and active presence in our lives.

Just like Vianne did with her chocolate and her acts of love and compassion, which broke open the rigid confinement of the town, so too our acts of love need to be ones that open us and the broken world around us to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Which tell us that to love like this is not about some warm and fuzzy naive feel good.

To love like this is to be transformed and transformational.

To love like this is to travel a journey inward and out.

It is to struggle and ponder and question.

It is to stand at the table with those who challenge us and our understanding of faith and church.

Christ comes down from the mountain to remind us that we are not to close ourselves off or stand rigid in some certainty of rightness, We are not to be like Peter in our Gospel, “Master it is good for us to be here.”

To love like this moves us to a new place. Jesus would not allow Peter to confine him to the mountain, Jesus’ ministry is intended to come down off the mountain and move out into the world changing and transforming the broken places.

Bringing wholeness, health, and new life.

The mayor in the movie Chocolate was so concerned with holding the rules tightly that he would even write the sermons for Sunday.

Pere Henri's (the young priest), was stuck in the rigid system of the town and did not know how to tell the mayor no. The movie ends with the mayor falling asleep, in the showcase window of the Chocolaterie on Holy Saturday, never having finished the Easter sermon.

The priest has to write and preach his own sermon for Easter Day….And he is up for the challenge.

What he says offers us an excellent place to begin our Lenten meditation:

He says: “I want to talk about Christ’s humanity, I mean how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Clarify What's Most Important

What we have before us lies on the cusp of being either depressive, discouraging, and potentially panic filled - or an opportunity to see this time as one asking us to be adaptive to the challenge, open to possibility, hopeful, and therefore quite possibly transformational.

I have invited us to approach this time, from the end of December until today, as a process of discernment and prayer keeping ever mindful of the need for a good sense of humor.

Discernment is an ancient Christian discipline, a practice that involves self-reflection, asking questions, taking risks, and…paying attention to what is going on deep inside. This paying attention requires us to focus on the subtle and the sublime – listening to overtones, paying attention to what quickens inside of us, surrendering ourselves to God’s love. It’s paying attention when we are not at all sure where we are going. Diana Butler Bass in Christianity for the Rest of Us says, “Discernment is an odd guide, however for it not only points the way on the journey but is a sort of destination in itself.” Pg 96.

Mark McIntosh, who led our adult forum several years ago and preached a sermon on being distracted from prayer by eating Doritos, suggests that discernment entails more than just listening for the spirit. Discernment has five phases: faith, distinguishing between good and evil, practical wisdom, sensitivity to pursue God’s will, and contemplation of wisdom. Together these take us past a technique driven or self interest self help spirituality. Discernment happens on an individual and a communal level.

Today we are not going to engage in a problem solving solution based process with quick fix answers. I want us to spend some time in silence and some time talking with our table groups. And then some time sharing with the group as a whole.

What we are going to look at are ideas for how we can adapt to the challenges before us – these challenges are – how to be good stewards of the resources we have before us. How to best use our resources of time, talent, and finances, to shape and form us for the future of this parish.

I want us to be careful to not get so bogged down by nuts and bolts that we lose sight of our real job here today. I don’t want us to rush into problem solving and coming up with solutions. I want us to be calm, focused, and willing to engage in creative conversation, silence, and prayer.

The process will look like this:
The treasurer will give us the report on the parish finances, how we ended up 2006 and also the proposed budget for 2007. You may ask us questions about the report and budget but let’s not have a problem solving discussion. Refrain from saying, at this point in time, “Let’s do this” or “let’s do that”. Try to suspend all impulse in that direction for the time being.

Following the treasurers report we will watch a power point presentation that guides us through our recent history. Then we will move into some discerning time: to do this, I will offer a prayer, invite some time for silence, give you a question, invite more time for silence, than ask you to discuss the question as a group at your tables.

I will repeat this four times for four questions. Between each question we will come together as a group and see what has risen up among us.

1. Clarify what matters most. Remember don’t focus on nuts and bolts stuff, move to a deeper level of what matters – move beyond simply needing more money or more people to what really matters most.

2. How is this most important aspect in balance with other things?

3. What is the trade off?

4. What is the central task for our parish to live into what matters most, balance the other things, and live with the trade off?