Sunday, June 24, 2007

A New Order

A homily based Luke 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29, proper 7C

I have vivid childhood memories of driving through the country, on either dirt roads, or major highways, and being struck by the heavy scent of a pig farm. There is no odor quite like it, and no image can quite convey its potency. Now, I spend a fair amount of time around horses and horse barns. I have cats and dogs and birds. Animal scents are not unfamiliar to me. But, pigs. They are something else.

So, when I watched Mike Rowe, from the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” working a pig farm, I almost gagged. The series has the host, Mike Rowe, travel to various places and apprentice at the worst jobs you can imagine. But, these are all jobs that people do every day, jobs we probably don’t even think about. This particular episode, Pig Farmer, first aired on Tuesday, August 9, 2005. Here is a short recap of that episode from the Discovery Channel web page:
“(for) Mike's first task at the Iowa pig farm, he takes on the duty of feeding a group of pigs standing in "crud". After feeding the swines, he travels to the gilt pen where the hogs which will be held for breeding are kept. Mike shovels layers of pig droppings out and fends off bites from the pigs who see him as an unwelcome visitor.

After catering to both ends of the swine's digestive system, Mike moves on to work with the baby piglets born just one day ago. His objective here is to clip their razor sharp teeth, trim a half inch off their tails, clip their dried umbilical cord and administer two injections in their neck: one of supplemental iron and the other an antibiotic to help fight infection. Mike sees how it is done and then dives right in.”
Now, I could go on and tell about the rest of the episode, but, well, its best I stop here. I hope though that this gives you a glimpse into how the folks from the first century would have heard this story about Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Pigs were considered unclean and never eaten by the Jews of Jesus’ day, and many Jews today. But the herd of swine also stand for other things considered unclean by the Jews of Jesus’ day: like the Roman Emperor and the Roman soldiers. That’s what the word “Legion” points us to. Which means that this reading is complex and has many layers of meaning.

So, the pigs represent the Roman Empire and the Roman soldiers. What about the possessed man and the pig farmers, who is he, who are they? Let’s look at the possessed man first. Often in group dynamics there will be one person who serves as the community scapegoat. This person, as the scapegoat, manifests all the illness of the family or community. This person is always sick and has lots of ongoing problems. Now, not every sick person represents a group scapegoat, it’s more complex than that. But generally speaking, a chronically sick person may be the scapegoat of a particular system. By being the scapegoat this person manifests the anxiety and illness of the entire group so that the other people can function as healthy people. It’s a complex process where both sides work together. The group unconsciously decides who the ‘sick” person is. The designated person, being highly sensitive, agrees, unconsciously to carry the burden.

Perhaps in this gospel community, the Gerasene demonic was the community scapegoat. He manifested all the ailments of the community, their fears of darkness, their worries about disease and illness, their concerns about money and clothing, he was the designated sick one. He was the identified patient (a technical term used by mental health professionals).

The community was comprised of pig farmers. They made their living raising and caring for pigs. So, two significant things happen when Jesus heals this man. One, the community loses their scapegoat and two they lose their source of income when the swine jump off the cliff.

Homeostasis is a term from biology. It means that all systems work hard to achieve over and over again the state they consider to be “normal.” The state that feels “normal” however, is not always the healthiest state, especially in complex systems of human relationships. But human communities nonetheless seek homeostasis, meaning they want things to stay the same, to feel “normal” what ever that is. Unless the entire community can change for the better, eventually someone else will become the scapegoat.

This week we have celebrated two major events in the world history and global dynamics. One was World Refugee Day on Wed. and the other is the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the very lucrative slave trade. True. Christianity is as much to blame for slavery as it is the cause for its end. Sadly, people in this world, because of greed, hatred, and prejudice, cause harm to other people, creating many of the influences that cause war, and refugees.

The Gersene Demonic may be a metaphore in our world for those marginalized by religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As global societies we are the pig farmers.We put upon certain people our anxieties, fears, and illnesses.The world communities let these designated others carry the burden so we can think of ourselves as healthy.

Thankfully these designated people are not compliant. Many of them refuse to carry this burden; they want to live healthy lives.

As Christians, Jesus represents to us all that is good and holy and well in God’s love, in creation. Jesus is the one doing the real dirty job in this world: sitting with, eating with, being with, healing the unwell, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, tending the needy of this world. There are no scapegoats in Jesus’ world. No one is less than anyone else. Jesus resets the homeostasis in a new way. What is normal for Jesus is the created order of the world that God desires, that God first set forth at the beginning of creation. It is an order that humans try to disrupt, and Jesus aims to restore.

Jesus leaves the healed man behind, to carry on in his absence. We are called to do likewise. To carry on, to be the face of Christ in the broken world.And to heal the chronic illnesses of our world.
In baptism each one of us has been made new. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us of this. There is a new order, no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are ALL one in Christ. And as Christians, we are called to carry on in the name of Christ; to be his hands and heart in the world.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Where is your heart?

A homily based on Luke 7:36-8:3

Once upon a time a father and his son took a walk on the beach. As they went along the father would stoop down, pick something up, and throw it into the ocean. Finally the son asked, “What are you doing?"The father replied, "Throwing starfish in the ocean."

"Well, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?"

"The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don't throw them in they'll die."

"Don’t you realize,” said the son, “that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can't possibly make a difference!"

The father listened, then bent down, picked another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said, "It made a difference for that one." (story adapted from other versions I've heard, original source unknown).

As Christians God calls us to make a difference in the world. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we are shown how to love God, love neighbor, and love self.

Over sixty years ago Episcopal Migration Ministries, on behalf of the Episcopal Church, began an active ministry with Refugees, responding to the cries of a broken world. In 1951 the United Nations established an official World Refugee Day, June 20th, which we celebrate this Wednesday.

In the past year this congregation has helped a couple from Ethiopia and a family of fifteen from Liberia. In the past three weeks we have helped a family of seven from Rwanda, two families from Burundi, four families from the Congo, and two more families from someplace (I know not where exactly).

We have filled and emptied our supply of dishes and utensils, three times. Obviously the need is great. But so is, I think, our compassion. We are doing a great job of rising to the occasion and meeting this need. We are making a difference, one family at a time.

Which leads me to our gospel reading this morning. In it we hear of Jesus arriving at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. He came for dinner and had just taken his place at the table when a woman arrived. She stands behind Jesus, then kneels at his feet. She baths them with her tears and a fragrant ointment, then she dries the tears with her hair.

Simon is appalled at this. As a Pharisee he belongs to elite social class, the educated class, the class that follows the letter of the law.

And this woman, this sinner, should not be touching Jesus. And he, if he were really a prophet, would know who she is, and Jesus would not allow her to touch him.

So. What is going on?

This is a story about what lives in the heart of people as symbolized by Simon. Simon lives with a great deal of doubt about who Jesus is. These doubts manifest in his thoughts. Jesus sees into the heart of people and addresses the concern right where it exists.

Simon really doesn’t understand the depth of God’s love and forgiveness.

But the woman understands. She has been very down, rock bottom down. She knows that God has forgiven her. We don’t know why. We don’t know what she did to be known as a sinner. It doesn’t matter.

The point is, we all sin. And we all are forgiven.

The woman models for us our response to God gracious love, which is: caring for the body of Christ. And this means caring for one another. We are the body of Christ.

Our ministry with refugees is an opportunity for us to move from having hearts like Simon to having hearts like this woman.

When we live as Simon, we live as people who do not recognize the global influences that cause pain, suffering, war, genocide, and the other forces that create refugees. In ways we cannot fully understand we contribute to these causes. The oil that produces gasoline for our cars, the world economic market and jobs, the distribution of food and wealth, all underlie some of the problems causing wars and refugees. Not to mention our human tendency toward greed and possessiveness.

But when we take on the heart of this woman we acknowledge that we sin in ways we cannot fully see or understand. That is the point of our general confession which we pray every Sunday morning, and of the absolution. This confession reminds us that we sin in ways known and unknown. And that we are forgiven.

But being forgiven doesn’t mean we go on doing the same ole same ole. No. Being forgiven means we work for change. We aim to do better and be better.

Our ministry with refugees is one powerful way to go about this. This ministry is a true work of generosity and gratitude.

Quite likely we personally will never face circumstances as dire as the refugees. What we face instead is the potential for indifference or apathy.

The needs in this world are so great, the demands so high, we might become like the son in my story, why bother? Or like Simon and not understand.

But we have a choice.

We can become like the woman wiping away the tears of the world. And,like the father, we can make a difference, one life at a time.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Baptism, An Invitation to Dance with God

a sermon based on Psalm 30 (Proper 5C) and baptism

Last week I had the pleasure of assisting a group of High School kids prepare for the prom. Now, I have already been through the prom thing twice with our daughter, not to mention Turn About and Homecoming. We have several formal-ware dresses hanging in the closet - never to be worn again, as a case in point.

It was quite a process preparing a girl for these rites of passage in high school. For the girl, the dance is secondary; it’s really all about the dress. And the hair and make up and jewelry. And, well, maybe the date….

I imagined this time, as I helped our son prepare, that it would be different. What I found out, is, it’s not that much different. It was quite a sight to stand in the Men’s Warehouse with racks filled with hundreds of tux’s waiting to be picked up. And all these young men coming in, trying them on, and looking ever so uncertain and uncomfortable. Full of hope and expectation and trepidation.

On the night of the prom the parents and kids of this group all went to one house for pictures. The young people were dressed, all looking beautiful and handsome. At picture time they posed, or allowed parents to pose them for photos. A mixed degree of giggling and stiffness followed by a digression to goofiness and then stiffness again. I could tell they were anxious to leave their parents behind and get on with the party.

After they left, and through the night, I wondered about them. Were they having a good time? (yes). Were they dancing? (no). Or remaining at their table, awkward and giggly. (probably). Or worse, fighting. (thankfully, no)

Do you remember your prom, those of you who are old enough to have gone? Or did you not go? Perhaps you remember other school dances? Did you dance? Or did you stand in the corner and eat pizza?

Recently I attended CREDO at a conference center in Virginia. One of our last nights there the leaders brought in a group of Colonial Dancers to show and teach us dances from the colonial period, like the minuet and the Virginia Reel. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I wanted to dance every dance. A few other folks were just like me.

But others – oh no. They did not want to dance. And were even offended at being asked, like they had no choice…clearly uncomfortable…I thought, some things never change…

Today we celebrate baptism. Baptism is an invitation by God to enter the dance of faith in a new way. As Christians we know baptism to be the rite of passage that brings us into the fullness of community a people of God. Baptism moves us from one way of knowing who we are to a new way of knowing who we are, from person to Christian. From individual to partner and community.

In baptism Jesus meets us and clothes us in the attire of a Christian…We wear on our being; faith, hope, love, compassion.

For the last several weeks we have prayed for Claire, who will be baptized in a few minutes. It may seem odd that we pray for her simply by Claire. But, this is because in baptism we are all known by the same surname. Today, through the waters of baptism, she takes on the same last name given to each of us, Christian. We are all one in the family of Christ.

Like prom, it is a group dance. It’s not a solo, nor is this dance even a duet.It is a group dance, like the Virginia Reel, or a square dance with interchanging partners…But the dance of faith that God invites us into with baptism is a reminder that life will not always flow with ease. Like any complex dance we may loose our place or forget the steps, or simple get out of rhythm.

In her book, Grace, Eventually, Anne Lamott writes about a time she helped in a special-ed dance class. She says: “All of us lurch and fall, sit in the dirt, are helped to our feet, keep moving, feel like idiots, lose our balance, gain it, help others get back on their feet, and keep going….I know that humans want and need: to …belong, to feel safe and respected... And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.”

Life is a dance, it moves fast, it moves slow, it can be easy, and it can be hard.

At times the clothes of Christian - faith, hope, love, compassion will feel like our birthday suits, natural and right. But on other occasions the clothes of Christian will feel awkward, we won’t be quite ready for them, like kids dressing up in formal ware.Asking questions like: How do we live our faith? Where do I find hope in this situation? How can I love in this personor show compassion?

Life may take us to places of such great vulnerability that we feel totally exposed.

This is the place of our psalmist today. Psalm 30 cries out to a God once known, but now, unknown. Where is this God? In our Psalm today we hear the psalmist cry out to God who is suddenly gone. “You, Lord, with your favor made me strong as the mountains…Then you hid your face – Hear, O Lord and have mercy on me…Turn my wailing into dancing…”

We hear the cry for God – lift me up and restore me. God who is known… and, yet, God who can seem to hide God’s face. As Christians we know, over the course of a life time, there will be days, weeks, even years, when we will wonder where God has gone.

Why has God hidden God’s face?

We will wonder if God is with us or are we dancing alone dressed in nothing but the “Emperors new clothes, (If you remember that childhood story….?

But also as Christians, over the course of a life time we come to know, that even in those dark and lonely days, God is present. Even if we have no idea how or where. God is with us.

Thomas Merton, The famous monk and Christian Spiritual writer once wrote that "no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there.”

God lives with us in a holy rhythm… as a holy partner. Being clothed in baptism is not a guarantee to perfection, nor an easy life. God’s invitation to dance is not dependent on whether we are comfortable in our clothes nor able to dance. It doesn’t matter if we have rhythm or know the steps. Nor does it matter if know and then we loose sight of God…

The dance is God’s dance.

And we are God’s partner.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Trinity Sunday: The Artist of Life

A Sermon from Romans 5:15

A few weeks ago in my sermon I referred to Rob Bell who wrote the book, “Velvet Elvis.” Bell begins this book using a reference to a velvet Elvis he has in his basement. He goes on to talk about the emerging church, Christianity in the 21st century, and how life and faith are like art – the work is never really complete once and for all. There will always be another piece of art. Someone else will take this idea and recreate it with some new expression. And like art, faith is a process of God revealing God’s self over and over in new ways. We never have the complete picture of who God is.

The famous 20th century artist, Picasso, was deeply impacted by devastation of the Spanish Civil War. In response Picasso’s work became a response to the war, (Cubism) they became abstract and distorted, depicting the world as if there were no God. Without God, without the divine vision, everything was wrong.

For many people art is decoration, something we hang on our walls or sit on our coffee tables to adorn our homes. The purpose of art is adornment.

But for others art is an end within itself. Art in this way is intended to be a commentary on our lives and world. This is true of the work of Picasso and Dali and all the great artists; their work is a statement about the world we live in.

For several years now this icon
has been hanging in our narthex. An icon, unlike art, is not intended to comment on the world we live in. Nor is the icon intended to be just an adornment on the wall. Rather icons are intended to express something of the divine, of the nature of God. The spirituality of iconography is to help us see beyond the world to a place where God resides. The icon is not a picture of God. Rather, the icon is intended to draw us into prayer, and through prayer we come to know something of the essence of God.

This icon is of the Trinity, using Old Testament imagery of the angels that came to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre. This icon was written by Andre Rublev in the 15th century in Russia. The Russian icons have a very different look and feel from the Byzantine icons. Russian icons are softer, less harsh in the angles and expressions.

In this icon the angels are gathered around a table beneath an oak tree. The middle angel is robed in purple with a blue cloak. Another angel is robed in gold. And the third angel is watching them. The wings of each angel is touching the wings of the others.

The angel in the middle represents Jesus. The purple inner garment represents his divine nature – purple being the color of royalty in the ancient world. The blue outer garment represents his human nature and the world.

The angel in gold represents God, gold being the color of the ultimate ideal, holy and good. The wings of God overlap the wings of Jesus, they are of one essence.

The angel on the left is the Holy Spirit. The outer garment is green, a light green, like new leaves, representing life. The Spirit brings about new life, breathes new life. The wings of the Holy Spirit touch the wing of Jesus but do not overlap. This is because the Eastern Church does not abide by the idea, as stated in our Nicene Creed, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the son. For the Eastern Church the Holy Spirit proceeds only from God. All of which is a long story that I will save for another sermon.

The fact that the wings of Jesus and the Holy Spirit touch emphasizes the sameness of their nature. The inner garment of God and the Holy Spirit is blue. Humans were made in the image of God, which this blue garment represents – created by God, given life by the Holy Spirit. Jesus, who is divine, puts on the robe of humanity which makes him both human and divine.

This icon points us to see one of the ways we humans strive to know God. The Trinity is just one way we attempt to unpack the complex nature of who God is and how God expresses God’s self into the world and into our lives.

Today the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday after the feast of Pentecost. The most important thing about this day is that it points us think about how God lives in our lives and our world. Ultimately God is mystery. But a mystery doesn’t give us much to work with. So, for faiths that come from the Abrahamic tradition, meaning Judisim, Christianity, and Islam, God is relational.

The Christian faith describes this relationality: as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. All three expressions are of God and tell us something about the nature of God. Christians have wrestled for centuries attempting to unpack this. Suffice it to say that God comes to us as a Being who desires to be in relationship with us. And we claim to know God most fully in and through our relationships with others. This means our relationships with family and friends, but also our relationships outside our immediate family and community. How do we welcome and care for the other people in our world?

The way we here at St. Hilary’s are striving to do this is in part through our work with refugees. Now this may seem a bit abstract, the idea of knowing God through our work

with refugees. But it actually fits in nicely with the concept of the Trinity as way of knowing God in relationship. I have used art today in an effort to show how artists express the world around them through their medium. Art is not just room decoration. I’ve also talked about how our faith is like art. Faith is not static. Living life and exploring faith means that our faith is like a work in progress. And I’ve used icons to show how prayer leads us into the nature of God. Icons are tools for prayer, and it is through prayer that we come to know something about God. Having a glimpse of the nature of God we begin to see how God calls us to love one another.

What I want unpack about our work with refugees is how we are bringing together, into one ministry, an aspect of our world today with our understanding of the nature of God.

We know God as one who cares deeply for all of creation. And we know Christ as the example of God, showing us how we can be more like what God desires of us. And we know the Holy Spirit as that expression of God that brings our efforts to life. In caring for refugees we are responding to a significant problem in our world today. The millions of people have been displaced by war, violence, and fear of death. These people have lost everything, family, home, country.

Recently we gave refuge to a family from Rwanda. They stayed with us for about six days. It was a time of profound gift. They came to us tired and worn. We gave them a place to rest and renew their hope and energy.

Two examples will stay with me. One was the day I took over for the children a few toys. These included two used scooters that belonged to my kids when they were younger. A few tennis rackets and balls, some wiffel balls and some soccer balls. The look of sheer delight on the faces of these kids cannot be described. They laughed with glee and ran off to play immediately. For the next few days we saw them glide with ease across the parking lot on those scooters.

The second example took place on the day they left. As we were packing them up and loading up the truck I told the kids that they could keep the scooters and other items I gave them. They in turn gave me this picture. (Will try to take photo of picture and upload it) It is a simple piece of art work. It is not a masterpiece created by some famous artist. Nor is it a grand and ancient icon. But I think it reflects this family and through them something about the nature of God. I suspect they had several of these and gave them to people along the way who helped them find their new life.

This picture will always represent to me the spirit of abundance, for even as this family had nothing but a few suitcases of clothes, they came bearing gifts. The picture will always remind me of the immense generosity of God and how we are to give in response from the treasure we have. For it is in giving that we come to know the depth of God as God is active in this world. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: from the depth of our suffering we come to know endurance and from our endurance we come to know the fullness of our character and our character produces hope. And from hope we come to know the fullness of God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And from this place, filled with God’s love, we become the face of Christ to a broken world. Not just a portrait of God to adorn our walls, but a pathway into the very heart of God.