Sunday, July 29, 2007

Prayer: A Way to Balance "Doing" and "Being"

A reflection on Luke 11:1-13

A mother sent her fifth grade boy up to bed. In a few minutes she went to make sure that he was getting in bed. When she stuck her head into his room, she saw that he was kneeling beside his bed in prayer. Pausing to listen to his prayers, she heard her son praying over and over again. "Let it be Tokyo! Please dear God, let it be Tokyo!"

When he finished his prayers, she asked him, "What did you mean, 'Let it be Tokyo'?"

"Oh," the boy said with embarrassment, "we had our geography exam today and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of France."

The last few weeks our scripture readings, especially the Gospel, have pointed us to look at our relationship with God. They’ve all asked the questions, “What does it mean to love God?”. Two weeks ago we read about the lawyer debating with Jesus. Jesus responds to the lawyer with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The point: it isn’t enough to know what God wants of us - love God, love self, love others - we need to live it.

Last week we heard the story of Mary and Martha, Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teachings, Martha, as the host, is busy cleaning and cooking and working. The point: We need to live balanced lives that include both living an active faith and nurturing that faith with worship, study and prayer.

Today we learn how prayer is an essential element in living a balanced life – this reading points us to see that who we are and what we do needs to be grounded in prayer. But of course, we have our own ideas of what it means to pray, which are not necessarily Jesus’.

In a Peanuts cartoon Charlie Brown is kneeling beside his bed for prayer. Suddenly he stops and says to Lucy, "I think I've made a new theological discovery, a real breakthrough. If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for."

Our prayers tend to be occasions to ask God to do what we want in our lives. We want God to do this or that. Now, certainly it is alright to ask God to help us. It’s just that God doesn’t always help us in exactly the way we think God ought too.

In this Gospel reading Jesus directs the disciples to consider prayer from another perspective. Jesus was praying. The disciples saw this and wanted to learn how to pray in a similar manner. So Jesus teaches them to pray in a way that brings the whole self to God.

Jesus opens the prayer with “Father,” a term that suggests he is speaking to someone very close to him. Later Augustine would describe this relationship as one in which God is more intimate with us than we are to ourselves – God knows us better than we know do. And Teresa of Avila said that this relationship, of God with us, means that God resides at the very center of the human person: the way Jesus prays describes a deep, intimate relationship.

We often pray with the intent of asking God to do something for us, we need God to do what we want in our lives…and then we are left wondering about those times in our lives, and in others, when the prayers appear to be unanswered.

Praying to God is less about changing God and more about changing us. Prayer is not so much about what God is doing for us. Prayer is about God being in us. When we pray we open ourselves up to God and allow God to work in us and through us.

In the novel "The Great Hunger," a newcomer comes to a farm community. He refuses all friendship with his neighbors and puts out the no trespassing sign. One day a little child from the town climbs underneath his fence to pet his dog. The territorial dog thinks she is a threat, leaps on her and kills her.

Hostility spreads throughout the community. When the newcomer comes to town no one will speak to him. Clerks refuse to wait on him. Spring comes and the merchants refuse to sell him seed. Finally, the father of the girl who was killed comes over and sows his field. This act of kindness is too much for the insufferable newcomer. "Why-you of all people?" he asks. The father responds: “To keep God alive in my heart.”

The point of praying is to let God in, to wake God up inside of us, so that we can be changed into a more God-centered people. Praying is at the heart of doing and being. Praying changes us from the inside out. Prayer is how the lawyer will come to know the real meaning of the law. Prayer is how Mary becomes Martha and Martha becomes Mary. Prayer is how the disciples become more like Christ. Praying is how we become God-centered people. As God-centered people we are able to help others know God, just by being who we are. Our “being” becomes our “doing:” the way WE are able to be the face of Christ in a broken world.

Illustrations from
The theme for this homily was influenced by John Shea, “The Relentless Widow” The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Luke, Year C

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Art of Hospitality: Balancing Doing and Being

A reflection on: Genesis 18:1-10; Luke 10:38-42

Benedict of Nursia lived in Italy between the 5th and 6th centuries. Born into some wealth, he was sent to Rome for his formal education. This education would have established him in the life of a noble man, but after his education he chose to leave Rome and settle in the desert for a life of studying God and faith.

Over his life time Benedict started and directed twelve monasteries. So profound was his leadership that he is called the founder of Western monastic life for both men and women. For 1500 years monastic communities around the world have been established under the Benedictine order and follow the Rule of St. Benedict.

Essentially this rule is a set of guidelines for living in community; guidelines for developing one’s personal faith life, developing a corporate faith life, and the rules give guidelines for managing a monastic community.

The principle rule of life in Benedictine spirituality is hospitality.

As a result many monastic communities offer retreat centers, grounded in the Benedictine spirituality of hospitality. The Episcopal Church celebrates his feast day on July 11.

Embracing Benedictine spirituality is not limited to monasteries; many churches center their community faith life in the Benedictine spirituality of hospitality. Hospitality is one of the guiding principles of Diana Butler Bass’ book, “Christianity for the Rest of Us,” which many of us have read.

Hospitality means essentially: how we welcome others into our community and how we care for one another. The welcome, in its fullest sense, means all are welcome. Some call this: “radical hospitality.”

Faith communities around the country are finding creative ways to bring this ancient principle alive in their churches. It lives in the way churches worship, the way the congregation is attentive to newcomers, and the way we open ourselves up to everyone who walks in our doors.

Our readings today from Genesis and Luke point us to some of the scriptural foundations for using hospitality as a guiding principle for our lives.

In Genesis we hear the story that underlies the icon of the Trinity hanging in our narthex. This icon, written by a Russian iconographer represents the three persons - “angels” who appear to Abraham and Sarah. When they appear Abraham runs out to greet them and offers them profound hospitality – rest and food, bathing and comfort.

This was not such an easy thing to do, for the three could just as easily have been thieves out to rob them, very common among nomadic people in the desert.

But rather than presume they were thieves Abraham welcomes them. It is this radical hospitality, in the face of fear, that tells the story, for the three persons, are really angels of God – and in the Christian tradition of this icon – they have come to be the Trinity, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

In radical hospitality we are called to welcome all people because in doing so we also welcome God.

Mary and Martha continue the theme of hospitality and faith by unpacking two sides of this teaching: the balance between doing and being.

The spiritual teaching of this reading asks us to see the sisters of Mary and Martha as if they were two sides of one person. One side is the worker bee – always doing, the other is the quiet thinking side – always being.

This story teaches us that we need to balance these two pieces of our selves in order to live a good faithful Christian life. We must strive to balance the busyness of our lives with time for study, prayer, and quietness.

And then we are to go out and do likewise: we are to live an active life of faith – because the things we do are to be grounded in God through prayer and study.

In other words, the work each of us does in our daily lives, in our jobs, our homes, our lives, is to be grounded in our faith – this is how we live a Christian life.

Balancing life is an on-going process. Some of us are more inclined to be busy, like Martha. However, being overly busy may make us distracted or anxious instead of being grounded in a calm sense of God’s grace. Others of us are more inclined to study, like Mary. But if all we do is study or live quiet lives we may not be active in expressing our faith.

The goal is to do both, so that one informs the other – our quietness, study, or prayer informs our busyness, the work we do becomes the work of God. And the work of God is always grounded in hospitality, which means caring for others in a radical way:

loving God, loving self, loving others.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Love Your Neighbor, Love Yourself...a homily for Proper 10C

Luke 10:25-37

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to enjoy the TV show, Boston Legal. Granted, it is a bit ridiculous and outrageous in its portrayal of certain aspects of our society and office romance; although it’s probably more accurate than I care to admit. What I like about the show is it’s undertone of social justice. Each episode takes on a social cause and works it in to the office politics, in to the crime and trial, and most importantly in the brilliant closing statement of the trail lawyers. The writing is smart and provocative, looking at the nuances of the issue and the subtext the rides below the surface of cultural platitudes.

Our gospel reading this morning has a smart lawyer provoking Jesus. He really wants to push the issue of “Who is my neighbor?” This portion of the Gospel is part of an ongoing dialogue in Luke about what it really means to love God and love neighbor. The lawyers’ tone is somewhat sarcastic; this lawyer doesn’t want to really think about the neighbor. The lawyer wants to stay comfortable in his knowledge of the “law” and not get pushed into nuances and subtext of meaning. Besides, he’s sure he gets it and Jesus doesn’t.

But for Jesus the sublime is always more important than the socially accepted norm. Jesus sees below the surface and understands issues at their core. Jesus sees into people and knows what’s really in their heart. In response to the lawyers’ question he gives a pointed illustration, one the lawyer can’t fail to miss.

Who is my neighbor? In our world Jesus would push us to look carefully at all our norms, all the ways we categorize people and therefore deem them as acceptable or as folks we need not care about.

The dirty smelly homeless person walking up to you…

Kids in the mall wearing baggy black clothes, multi-colored hair, and black eye make up…

Dark skinned people…

People who don’t speak English…


Too thin…

Who is my neighbor? Well, only those who are normal, like me…

These are the arguments used by the Levite and the priest. In their minds they could say, “I don’t need to help this person because this person is defiled, impure, and just touching this person will make me bad…the law entitles me to walk on by.”

The same is true for us. The list of who we consider our neighbors, or not, goes on and on. We all use our prejudices and bias to justify in our heads our response to other people. We choose to criticize, belittle, and judge. At the very least we choose to look the other way. There are many broken people in this world. But not everyone in our profile of brokenness is in fact broken. Or at least not anymore broken than we are ourselves.

The Samaritan helps the injured man. It is like you or me helping the person who makes us the most uncomfortable. Or, better yet, it would like you or me being the injured person; helped by someone who makes us the most uncomfortable. Surely the initial thought of the injured man was, no, not you, not a Samaritan?

Think about it. How would you feel if you were suddenly in need of help? And the one person who stopped to help you was the person you are most afraid of. Would it feel like help? Probably not at first…

Who is my neighbor?

Many people in our suburbs, in this county, leave for work early in the morning. Come home at night pull into the attached garage and enter the house from the garage. We never go outside, or if we do we have tall fences around our property. We never even see our neighbors.

Who are they? Some of us have no idea.

In the end this Gospel is not just a question of “who is my neighbor?”

More importantly it is also a question of “What kind of a neighbor am I?”

The Gospel pushes us to consider not only the identity of our neighbor, but also, who we are.

Who am I?

And, then,

How do I love?

The real question of this Gospel becomes not who but how.

How do I love and how do I allow myself to be loved?

Think about it.

Then, go and do likewise.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

An Heirloom of Love

A short reflection on the Gospel for Proper 9C 2007
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

When I was little I remember a certain chair that belonged to my great-grandmother. It was a desk chair with a curved wood back, arms, and seat; a swivel chair on wheels. My brothers and I loved to twirl in that chair, round and round we’d spin. But, because it was old it wasn’t the hydraulic lift and swivel like desk chairs are today. No. This one was like a nut and bolt: the seat was a big nut that screwed onto the threaded bolt-like base. So, if we twirled enough in one direction the seat would screw right off the base and we’d end up on the floor.

My mother ended up with this chair and moved it with her everywhere, for decades. Over the years it was painted every color of every generation including, as I remember it, yellow – and then – olive green.

A few years ago, after my mother died, I found that old chair stuffed into my mother’s storage locker, broken in several pieces. She couldn’t bear to throw it out. But, now it was neither a cherished antique, not an heirloom nor a legacy, just a broken chair. So, I threw it out.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus sends the “appointed” out in pairs, seventy some people. Their task is to continue the ministry of Jesus, to go where he had intended to go and do what he had intended to do. They are to offer a way of passing down from one generation to the next an experience of Jesus. They are to offer folks, long after Jesus has gone, a precious heirloom of God’s love poured out in Christ, given for us.

What they are offering is the gift of relationship.

And, so, these appointed ones are to travel light. No need to carry any baggage. Just go and be present for the people they meet. Visit with them. Share stories. If they are welcomed, wonderful. A legacy will begin; a family history of God’s people will be shared and lived into in a new way. But if they are not welcomed, don’t worry. Move on. Don’t carry that baggage either, the baggage of being rejected or ignored. It’s ok. God’s
work will happen somehow, someway. Just move on and try again.

Of, course it will be difficult work at times. Not only will people reject the appointed ones but some might become hostile: “scorpions, snakes, and wolves” will come out to “attack” and “bite.”

Jesus’ advice to such threats: just keep going. The kingdom of God is near.

By their presence and with the intent of their hearts, these appointed ones bring with them the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a precious heirloom; it grows richer over time. The kingdom of God is like a priceless well aged piece of furniture, growing in value the longer the kingdom of God resonates around us. And like antiques which carry the stories of those who have used it, the kingdom of God becomes a part of our very being. And we become a part of the kingdom.

We, Christians today, are the appointed ones. We are charged to go out and share this heirloom with others. This heirloom, our Christian faith, is like a rich antique table. Around this table we invite all to join us, to come and share in the feast. We bring nourishment to the hungry, those who are starving, spiritually, or physically.

Today’s Gospel cautions us; We bring God’s love - we don’t need to bring everything. It reminds us that some of the things we might cling too are really not needed. They may feel like part of our history and our tradition, but being old doesn’t necessarily make them valuable. Some things, like that old broken chair, don’t need to be saved, stored, and moved around just for the sake of saving them. Some things just need to be discarded.

Religion is like that too. Sometimes we need to discard particular ways of understanding our faith. Often the way we understand God and what God is doing in the life death and resurrection of Jesus is bound by the culture and society we live in. Many of the ways we understand God are human constructs, they can be helpful but not always “necessary” – God is mystery.

So, this gospel helps us in our housecleaning. What’s important is to bring only the most valuable and necessary pieces – ourselves, and God’s love. Our Collect for the Day sums this up: O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Putting Our Hand to the Plow and Looking Forward to the Future

Luke 9:51-62

On July 4th our country will celebrate the 231st anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Did you know that this celebration of our nation also offers us an opportunity to reflect on the Episcopal Church and its role in American history?

Many of those who created and signed the Declaration of Independence were members of the Church of England. (Of course the operative word is “were,” past tense). Because they became founders not only of this nation, but of the new Episcopal Church. Both the church and our nation were born of similar principles regarding freedom, respect, dignity, and a democratic process.

Several churches along the east coast will celebrate their rich history over these next few days. Bruton parish in Williamsburg, VA retains vestry records from April 18, 1674. Noted parishioners, include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Members of this church spoke out in church and protested The Stamp Act of 1765. The closing of the port of Boston in 1774 caused a protest march that processed to the church for a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.

Old North Church in Boston was built in 1723. It was here, during the evening of April 18, 1775 that the church sexton, Robert Newman, climbed the steeple and held two lanterns as a signal to Paul Revere that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea and not by land.

Christ Church in Philadelphia has a rich history as well. It was here that the Declaration of Independence was signed. It was at this church that The Episcopal Church and its General Convention were formally organized. Parishioners who worshipped here include John Penn, George and Martha Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, - who is buried in the church yard.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus admonishes the disciples for being distracted. He reminds them that the journey of faith can be difficult and filled with challenges. His parable about foxes and birds and leaving the dead behind sounds harsh. But it is a reminder that we are not to get so caught up with the details and distractions of our lives that we lose sight of the Gospel.

The Gospel calls us to follow Jesus and in so doing to keep God at the center of our lives. The Gospel reminds us that our focus is to love God, love our selves, and love neighbors.

What is important is the balance of those three aspects of love: God, self, and others.

We are not to get so carried away with self that we forget God and ignore others. Nor are we to get so caught up with God that we begin to think that we are God, pumping ourselves up as superior. Nor are we to get so caught up with others that we live a life of guilt and fail to care for self.

Our rich tradition, as a nation, and as Church, reminds us that we are called to live balanced lives focused on freedom, dignity, and respect for all people. It’s in our Declaration of Independence and it’s in the Episcopal baptismal covenant.

As a parish St. Hilary’s has a very short 45 year history. Almost 300 years passed from the first vestry meeting in Jamestown and the first vestry meeting of St. Hilary’s. Compared to the long and rich history of our sister churches founded at the formation of this country, we are just a blip in time.

Sometime I wonder, if St. Hilary’s disappeared, would anyone even remember we were here? What have we done to leave a lasting mark in history?

The history of the Episcopal Church, and its founding principles, call us to be a community focused on making a difference in the world. And our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that in making this difference we are not to get distracted by the various details of our lives.

This is one reason why I love our ministry with refugees, it will keep us focused in a Gospel kind of way so we can’t be distracted by our fears or worries. Working to resettle refugees gives us a purpose and points in the foot steps of Christ. Working with refugees will enable us to put our hand to the plow and look forward into a new history.

Lives will be changed, made new and whole again. And perhaps it will be through this ministry that we will leave our mark in history.