Sunday, May 20, 2007

Painting Our Masterpiece: Sermon Easter 7C

Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20; John 17:20-26

Rob Bell, author of the book, “Velvet Elvis,” and pastor at a church in Michigan tells this story about a painting in his basement:

“In my basement, behind some bikes and suitcases and boxes sits a Velvet Elvis. A genuine, bought-by-the-side-of-the-road Velvet Elvis. And to say that this painting captures The King in all his glory would be an understatement. It’s not the young Elvis –
the thin one with the slicked-back hair…And it’s not the old Elvis…. the big one in the shiny cape singing to old women in Hawaii.”

“My painting is the Pre-doughnut Elvis. A touch of blue in the hair; the tall, white collar that suggests one of those polyester jumpsuits….”

“But I think the best part of my Velvet Elvis is the lower left hand corner where the artist simply wrote a capital R and then a period.”

“Because when you’re this good, you don’t even have to write your whole name.”

“What if, when he was done with this masterpiece, R had announced there was no more need for anyone to paint, because he had just painted the ultimate painting?..we would say that R had lost his mind. We say this because we instinctively understand that art has to, in some way, keep going. Keep exploring. Keep arranging. Keep shaping and forming and bringing in new perspectives.”

“For thousands of years followers of Jesus, like artists, have understood that we have to keep going, exploring what it means to live in harmony with God and each other. The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in this process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how to live as God created us to live. “

“The challenge for Christians then is to live with great passion and conviction, remaining open and flexible…”

Here in lies the premise of this insightful book on the emerging Christian tradition: Realizing and remembering that we are invited into an active dynamic faith filled with passion and conviction, openness and flexibility.

In the adult forum we have read several books looking at this “new” way of thinking about our faith and being church. We have read Marcus Borg’s, “The Heart of Christianity,” and Brian McLaren’s “a Generous Orthodoxy,” and Diana Butler Bass, “Christianity for the Rest of Us.” And so, in that respect Rob Bells book is in good company.

And I like his illustration of our faith being like art, a work in progress.So, like art in progress, we need to continue to explore, create, and form our faith.

And, most importantly, he means particularly in the way we engage our faith through the Bible, through our scriptures. The Bible needs to be for us like the process of painting a masterpiece. Engaging in scripture in ways that allow us to be shaped and formed over and over. His argument is that we tend to want to hold the Bible as if it were static and unchanging, which would basically make it dead. Instead the Bible is very much alive and dynamic.So, we need to approach the Bible with enough openness and flexibility to allow the stories to help us make meaning out of our lives,Which will then fill us with a sense of conviction and passion; God loves us.

The Bible is indeed filled with truth, truth about the ways God is known to human beings. Truth about how God interfaces in our lives and in the history of all human kind. And the truth about God and humanity is that this relationship is always growing and evolving. We never know God once and for all. And God never reveals God’s self in a final complete way, until, perhaps, we have died. We always know only a small piece of God.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, in a footnote to his book The Heart of Christianity, says that when he asks his unchurched university students to write a short essay about their impressions of Christianity,

“they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.”

Think about it. Is this how you would describe yourself?

However, if a portion of young (or not so young) people in this country view us like that then we Christians have not done such a good job of portraying to the world who we are. If we are to know our faith with conviction, in an open, flexible and passionate way, then we ought to be known as open, flexible, and passionate people. Which of course means that we are expansive in our hospitality and in our generosity; welcoming to all and generous with what we have.Our struggle to do this reminds me of joke from Emo Philips:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too!

Are you christian or buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off the bridge.

Our ability to be open and welcoming always seems to have some limits. Some point in which we say, “This far and no more.” But I am not sure that Jesus had limits to whom he would welcome and love. Our scriptures tell us stories of Jesus loving those who understood and those who did not. Those who behaved according to what was acceptable and those who did not. Those who were willing and able to follow him, and those who could not…I think Jesus continues to model for us, through our scriptures, an open and welcoming faith that grows deeper through our relationships with others.

I have been here for six years. A lot has happened in those years. The landscape of the church, ours and the larger church, has changed. We’ve had lots of distractions. Regardless, during this time my emphasis has been on growing us in our faith and helping us find a way to express that. I want us to be known for who we really are a people with a great sense of hospitality and generosity. I’ve seen this in the way we care for one another. In our prayers and in the meals we bring.

And in the way we care for others. In our silent auction, our effort with the day care center, and the Kurutuki church.

And now, it is deeply apparent to me in the openness of the vestry to welcome the family from Rwanda. Although it is complicated we have nonetheless welcomed them here and given them temporary shelter. True, this will not be easy for us. We will need to live with and accommodate seven people who do not speak our language nor understand our customs. We will be a bit displaced, aware of strangers as we move through our building this day, and in the week ahead.

But then, so are they. Displaced from home, family, and everything that was familiar.

So, I think we can manage this for a few days or a week.

It is also apparent to me in the way some of our parishioners have connected with the refugee ministry, especially this consortium of churches I mentioned in my sermon last week. With this consortium we are creating a way for many churches to warehouse items needed to set up an apartment for refugee families.

And as I said, we anticipate up to 60 families arriving between July and Sept. My hope, as the Episcopal Migration Ministries Refugee Program Diocesan Liaison is to have a lot of the dishes, utensils, bed and bath linens warehoused so that the setting up of these apartments is just a matter of collating supplies and getting them delivered. So far I have seven churches working on this project and some from our parish who are actively soliciting business for donations. Donations of towels, dishes, and gift certificates, as well as money. It’s amazing to watch this come together. It’s exciting. I’ve written an article for the national EMM newsletter which will give us national attention for our efforts. As a parish we will be known in a new way for our openness and flexibility, our passion and our conviction.

We’re calling this consortium of churches: “Church Pantries for Refugees” or CPR. Because we are helping to give these families a new life. And because we are doing this through a gift of the heart – through our generosity, compassion, and hospitality. The heart of our faith calls us to love God, love self, and love others. All of our scripture readings this morning point us to ponder how we know Jesus in our lives.

I might add that it is also important, following up on Marcus Borg’s observation, that it is also important that we participate in how Jesus is known. Our faith is a canvas upon which we paint. It’s a canvas that can take layers of paint providing depth and texture. With this refugee ministry the canvas of St. Hilary’s has taken on some new colors, new texture. It will add depth to who we are. And for however long this ministry lives on in us it will help shape our faith.

We will come to know our scriptures in new ways. We will come to know Jesus in new ways. And we will bring a new face of Christ to a broken world.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Direction to Walk

Sermon Easter 6C Acts 14:8-18, John 14:23-29

We are quickly coming to the end of the Easter season, that time in church life between Easter Day and Pentecost. We will celebrate Pentecost this year on Sunday, May 27, Memorial Day weekend. And we will celebrate it as usual with a birthday party, pizza and cake, because Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Christian Church.

We will also celebrate those members of our parish who have dedicated so much time to building our new wall and creating the music room, including a formal dedication of the wall and room.

Through out the Easter season our scripture makes a slight change from the rest of the year: there is no Old Testament reading. Instead we make our way through the Book of Acts learning about the formation of the early church.

This formation had its beginning on Pentecost, which is why we celebrate it as a birthday party. Acts was written sometime around the years 80-85 CE, or about 5o years after the death of Jesus. It was written by the same person or community that wrote the Gospel of Luke. The Book of Acts continues the story of the Gospel of Luke, beginning with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in Luke and continuing with the Apostles and their work to build the church in Acts.

Much of the work in this early church revolved around spreading the Good News of God’s love in Jesus across the Roman Empire. In the process the church encountered some very intense controversy: what to do with these Gentiles who wanted to become Christian, but who had not lived according Jewish custom.

In particular was the issue of circumcision: Jews were circumcised, Gentiles were not.

Now to our ears this may seem quite mundane and trivial. Who cares? Aside from the doctor asking whether or not a baby boy will be circumcised no one really asks that question anymore. At least it never comes up in my daily conversations.

It helps to remember that Christianity grew out of Jewish communities. Jesus was Jewish and so were his friends and disciples. And so were most of the folks in the early church. One of the key markers of a Jewish man, that which distinguished him from Gentiles, was circumcision.

Circumcision was a primary ritual and fundamental sign of a faithful Jewish man. It marked him as holy, one of God’s people. Think about what is the most primary ritual and fundamental sign of faith to you.

Perhaps it is baptism. Perhaps it is Eucharist.

The point is, these things that we would name as primary to our faith help us to understand how challenging it was to be in the early church and face the debate on who could be a member and how.

The controversy then was probably as intense as the controversies we face today. Then they asked the question: “Would all male Gentiles need to be circumcised before becoming Christian?”

That was the first big debate and potential schism in the church. So, the early church had a meeting. Everyone gathered and debated the merits one way or the other. Can you imagine having a conversation like that in church today? Debating the merits of circumcision as it relates to faith?

In the end they decided to error on the side of God’s grace and hospitality. The Gentiles would not need to be circumcised; they could be full members regardless. Hospitality won, conformity did not. Peter led the way. You can read about this in the 10th and 11th chapters of Acts.

Time again through out the history of the church we have faced issues that rock our faith. Time and again, when we allow ourselves to listen to the Holy Spirit we find that God is guiding us, and in the end, it is God’s desire that lives on, not ours.

In today’s reading from Acts we hear about the healing of a man who had been crippled since birth. In this healing Paul said, stand and walk.

In living our faith we too are asked, to stand and walk. What I have found is that standing is not so difficult. It isn’t even really hard to walk. What is a challenge is to know the direction. In what direction are we to walk?

Jesus knows that walking in the direction God calls us will be our challenge. We hear something about this in our Gospel reading this morning. In our efforts to live into God’s words, God’s desire, we may find ourselves deaf to God, unable to hear. And being deaf we are lost. Being lost we are either standing still or walking in the wrong direction.

So, Jesus has sent us, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, or as Eugene Petersen says in The Message, Jesus sends “The Friend.” The Holy Spirit is our friend, sent by God, to be with us as we face the challenges of life. The Friend is given to us to teach us and to remind us of God’s love.

As with the people of the early church this “Friend” points us in the right direction. Reminding us that we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance. And, if we take the story of Acts and the building of the early church as our model for building church community then we are to error on the side of great hospitality and love.

One way we at St. Hilary’s are striving to do this is to participate in the resettlement of refugees. Working with EMM, Episcopal Migration Ministries and IRIM, Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries we are looking at ways we can assist in helping people find new homes in new countries.

Refugees are people who have been displaced from their homes and countries because of war, politics, and or genocide. These people cannot return home and expect to live. They live in refugee camps with crowded poor conditions, sometimes for 10 or 15 years. Entire generations are born and raised in these camps.

Countries around the world have formed together to help these refugees. Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques have gathered resources to help refugees find a new home. Our country has developed specific guidelines to determine who qualifies as a refugee and who can enter this country under refugee status. The guidelines are stringent. It takes years to move through the process.

As a church community we are working with EMM and IRIM to help the refugees who come to Chicago establish themselves and make a new life. We don’t do this with the expectation of getting anything in return. The people we help might be Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish. We do this because God has called us to help others in this world. To be for them the Friend, the bearer of the Holy Spirit. Helping is not just about standing or even walking, it is about having a direction.

And although what we at St. Hilary’s have done might seem meager and small we are becoming a beacon of hope, an example of what is possible. Our little effort to bring in coats, or donate dishes has set a pattern in motion. We are being held up by the national church through Episcopal Migration Ministries, as an example of what is possible.

As the volunteer EMM Refugee Program Diocesan Liaison I am working to create a consortium of churches to assist in meeting the needs of refugee families. IRIM anticipates 20 families arriving in July, another 20 in August, and another 20 in September.

The process of attaining apartments and setting up housing for 60 families in three months is daunting. This consortium of churches can help. I am creating a means by which churches can establish a warehouse in an unused closet or corner of their church where they can store specific items. For instance one church will store items for bathrooms: towels, bars of soap, combs. Another will house items for the bedroom.

Here in Prospect Heights we are going to work with two other churches, Good Shepherd and St. Als to house kitchen items. St. Hilary’s will gather and store eating utensils: knives, forks, spoons, and cooking utensils. Starting next week we will have a bin sitting next to the baptismal font to place your items, like we did for the silent auction.These can be used or new. But we need to gather enough utensils to stock a kitchen for 20 families of 4 by July. I think we can do that.

Then as the refugee families arrive we will box up our share and have them ready for pick up or delivery. The other churches will do the same, and in a short day of driving a staff person from IRIM can swing by and gather all the items to set up an apartment.

We are calling this ministry, Church Pantries for Refugees, or CPR, a good metaphor for starting life again. Just as the Spirit breathed life into the early church and gave them direction we are called to bring forth new life in our world. For in caring for others we move past the places where we get stuck in our faith.

We stand, walk, in a clear direction, helping others, following the Spirit. This is the peace of Christ.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Love, as good as it gets.

The movie, As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear, is a story of profound and unexpected love. Nicholson plays a man, who by all social standards, appears to be peculiar and odd. He is socially inept and has strange habits. He says outrageous things and insults people. His life is dictated by certain habits and patterns of behavior that he must follow in order feel like he can manage his life.

One of his habits is to frequent a certain restaurant and to always have the same waitress, played by Helen Hunt. She manages to put up with his peculiar need to have prewrapped plasticware, which he perceives as cleaner than the washed and used metal knives and forks that other patrons use. She is able to put up with his bluntness by being blunt right back.

When Helen’s character quits her job to deal with her sick son Nicholson’s character gets involved. Not from some altruistic desire to help….no, he wants his waitress back, the one that is familiar….

So, he helps her get the level of medical care her son needs, care that she is unable to afford on her own. In some ways he saves her son’s life. A third character in the movie is played by Kinnear. He is the artist who lives next door to Nicholson.

One day the artist is attacked, robbed, and almost killed. He ends up penniless and in need of finding a new place to live. Again, Nicholson’s character comes to the rescue and takes him in.

Each of these characters in “As Good As It Gets” is flawed. Each has problems in life to face. But the interaction of each one with the other two heals them one and all. It is a movie about transformational love, Gospel love. The kind of love Jesus speaks of in our Gospel reading this morning.

This love, that Jesus commands, is not a warm and fuzzy naïve love. This love challenges us to grow and become more fully who we are in and through our love of others.

Margaret Guenther, an Episcopal priest and Spiritual Director, wrote about this kind of love in an article in the Christian Century in May of 1995. She says, (quote)“Love is the most potent of the four letter words: love, hate, life, work…” (end quote)

Potent because it asks so much of us. Potent because it makes us wonder just how anyone can be commanded to love another? Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

On the surface this may seem easy to do. Be nice. Be kind. Be respectful.

This Gospel reading from John throws us back to Maundy Thursday. That is the occasion when we hear this story most often. The reading begins with the last supper. Jesus has just washed the feet of his friends.

He has tied a towel around his waist, knelt on the floor, and washed their feet.

Jesus, in his great humility, shows the disciples the depth of his love for them. He has washed them and fed them, even Judas, who was to betray him, was washed, fed, and loved.

And all these friends, who vow to stay with Jesus, eventually all these friends abandon him. Each one runs away and denies him. Tough to love friends like these.

But in the resurrection we learn over and over again just how much he loves them for being who they are….And therefore how much we are loved as well.

The generosity of God’s love is reinforced in the psalm we prayed: “The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.” To our modern ears this kind of gospel love gets lost. We may confuse love with sentimentality. Like we love a kitten. Well, many of us do, and that’s wonderful.

Or we may confuse love with obsession and possession. We may say, “I love chocolate.” Or, “I love this shirt.” Taken to an extreme this misunderstanding of love plays out in violence as people stalk other people, controlling what a person does or who a person sees, even killing others, in an abuse of love.

The love that Jesus commands is neither sentimental nor is it possessive. Gospel love, poured out by God in the incarnation is the love expressed by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection is a love the “lets be.” It is love that lets the other be who they are.

This love has the potential to heal because it loves in such an authentic way. Now, actually loving others in this way is challenging. Have you ever tried to love someone who really gets on your nerves?

In “As Good as it Gets” each of these characters has a way of getting on the nerves of the other characters simply by being the flawed human beings they are. And yet they find a way to truly care for one another. They risk the security and comfort of their narrow worlds and open themselves up to others who challenge them and love them in all their brokenness.

Nicholson’s character opens his home to his neighbor and he opens his heart to Helen Hunt’s character. She opens herself to her fears, allows herself to be vulnerable and take a risk with love. Kinnear’s character decides he can accept his parents as they are, even though they have disowned him. He could ask them for money to help him, and they would probably help despite their rejection of him for being gay. But he decides he will find his own way in the world. A way that includes accepting his parents and accepting himself.

Love God, love neighbor, love self, - the essence of Gospel love.

This is love as Jesus commands it. The potency of Gospel love – Of loving the other as they are – Is the fact that it becomes transformational. It is a transformational love that changes oneself and others by the very process of loving and being loved.

We become more fully who God desires us to be….This love is incarnational – It is the living embodiment of God’s love poured out for us in Jesus. It is the love made known to us in the birth of Jesus, where God came to know us as human beings.

To know our flaws, our fears, our sorrows, our joys.

It is the love of the resurrection, the love of God freely given even after humanity rejected Gods love and crucified it on the cross. God comes back and loves us more, because God understands us more fully, more deeply.

“The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.”

In the Christian Century article Gunther says, If we love one another as Jesus loves us, we must be ready to put aside our grudges, hurts and righteous anger. I tend to love with my fingers crossed. I'm ready to love almost everyone, but surely I can't be expected to love the person who has harmed me. Or who does not wish me well. Or who seems hopelessly wrong-headed. Surely I am allowed one holdout, one person whom I may judge unworthy of love. But the commandment has no loopholes, it demands that we let go of our pet hates, the ones we clutch like teddy bears.”

True gospel love calls us to radical inclusive behavior. True gospel love will not allow us to hide behind our places of comfort. True gospel love will not allow us a loophole. Everyone is to be loved.


Recently I was in a restaurant when a homeless man walked in. The owner of the restaurant immediately yelled at the man, “Go! Leave now!” and the man turned around and walked out. Now I know that there are all kinds of issues with the homeless. It’s not just that this man may have been looking for a meal or wanting to panhandle the customers, or that he would be bad for business.

Homelessness often includes all sorts of undiagnosed, unmedicated and untreated mental illness which also brings out all sorts of unpredictable behavior. But nonetheless the owner’s response left me unsettled. Surely there is a better way than yelling at the man to get out. Surely there is a place for compassion and love, a kinder gentler approach that would still maintain the comfort level of the customers while offering a way to address the needs of a hungry homeless man.

At the very least the owner could have found a more discrete, respectful way of asking him to leave. As our baptismal covenant says, “Respect the dignity of every human being…”

Or, how about arranging to leave food out after hours, making use of left-overs that can’t be sold or used?

I know there is no simple answer to problems like these. The issues we face have many layers…Solutions are complex; even, or especially, responses grounded in love.

Jesus’ commandment to love requires us to respond to the needs of the world around us. When we aim to live Gospel love, lives are changed, for the better. Sometimes these changes are big – They make the headlines –

But usually they are small, simple things…

Someone is washed,



Jesus said

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…”

Jesus shows us the way to true discipleship. For in loving one another we will know

Life, As Good As It Gets.