13 November 2013

Holy Reverie: 13 November 2013

Holy Reverie is the weekly clergy column in Calvary's electronic newsletter, the e-Pistle.  Subscribe today!

On many mornings, I drive Anna to school.  The drive is only ten minutes or so from my house to the car pool line, but that ten minutes is precious time.  Sometimes she and I "need" to have "a conversation" about something that occurred earlier in the morning or the day before.  Sometimes we blast Anna's most recent ear worm, the latest being Laura Branigan's "Gloria."  And sometimes we just chat or listen to podcasts.

One of our (truly, I am not exaggerating or exerting license, she genuinely requests this one) is the Writer's Almanac, a daily, five-minute or so nugget of poems, prose, and history (be still my liberal arts heart!).  One of her preferred activities in school is Writer's Workshop, so perhaps Ellen and I have a budding novelist on our hands.

Last Saturday, November 9, the poem of the day was "Greenwich" by Kirsten Dierking.  It reads,
At the naval museum I look at Nelson's uniform, the one
he was wearing the day he was killed, and the bullet's damage
to the blue coat is surprisingly slight. 
Just before he died he said thank God I have done my duty.
He must have been a little afraid of not being able to do
the heroic work required of him. 
It's a lovely day in late March, the sun and daffodils are out.
We walk to the observatory, straddle the prime meridian,
try to feel our blood flowing back and forth between hemispheres. 
There's a lot of laughter, young people clowning around,
adults striking silly poses for photographs. And why not?
One day, won't we all have to be brave?
After that final line, I looked back at my daughter, bright eyed and staring out the window and I wondered, when will she have to be brave?  If I had my way, never.  I would protect her from all things.  But, I know that I can't and so I wonder, when and how will she have to be brave?  I pray it's not for a long, long time.

But, our faith, our tradition, our Christ, assures us that when we are called to be brave, we are not alone.  We believe in an incarnate, a present God who never abandons us.  We uphold a tradition which values our community and mutual support of one another.  I am reminded of the question to the congregation during the baptismal service, "Will you who witness these vows do all in your
power to support these persons in their life in Christ?" and we respond with a robust, "We will!"  And we are saved by our resurrected Christ from death itself, and enabled to be brave.

When will we have to be brave?  Who knows.  But I do know, we are never brave alone.

29 October 2013

Sermon: 27 October 2013 (23 Pentecost / Proper 25)

Readings: Sirach 35:12-17Psalm 84:1-62 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18Luke 18:9-14

Audio | Podcast | PDF

Holy and Loving God, write a message on our hearts.  Bless us, direct us, and send us out, living letters of the Word.  AMEN.

I spent part of last night on Beale Street.  I have always wanted to say that!  I am sorry to report that my evening was not soaked with whiskey and intrigue, as the phrase might suggest, but it was a rather wholesome affair at the Orpheum with the poet laurite of public radio, Mr. Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion.  

It was a delightful evening, filled with music and laughter and several familiar faces in the crowd.  I enjoyed very much Mr. Keillor’s comments about how America needs more cities like Memphis, where so many different types of people weave together unlike the more homogeneous parts of our republic.  I most enjoyed his stories and he told a delightful one about the mayor of his fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon.  The mayor is involved in a battle for reelection and in a very interesting move, she sent the town constable to pick up her opponent’s dog because he was apparently out roaming about and scaring several local children and generally being a nuisance.  After his dog’s capture, the other mayoral candidate marches down to the city council chamber and rails against what he perceives to be the current mayor’s abuse of power.  The mayor felt, while awkward, that her decision was entirely justified.  Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t agree with her and she is horrified when several city council members make remarks sympathetic to her opponent’s position.  She stands up and yells, “I can’t take this ridiculousness and you people any more!” and she marches out of her chair, out of the room, and out the door.

There was only one problem.  The door she marched out of was the door to the janitor’s closet.  Not the grand exit she was hoping for.  But there she stood, marinating in the smell of mildewing mops, preparing to emerge from the closet and confront the inevitable smirks of her colleagues.

To attempt to retell a Garrison Keillor story, even only a small portion, is presumptuous in the least, perhaps even impertinent, but this story did remind me of some of the themes in our Gospel text, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a juxtaposition of two very different individuals, and two very different approaches to God.  Jesus says, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’”  The Tax Collector, on the other hand, stands far off, not even able to look up to heaven, but instead beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  

If we are honest and self-aware, all of us can be both of these people and all of us have thought very similar thoughts.  This Pharisee could not be more of a horse’s backside, “Thank God, I am not like those people … you know, those people.”  All of us, myself included, have “those people,” people with which we disagree, people who annoy and baffle us, people we turn off when they appear on TV, people who tempt us to partake in that most wretched sins: hate and prejudice.  They may be Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, young or old, you name it.  They might be Red Sox fans.  Whoever they are, we all have them and our arrogance prevents us from the pleasure of seeing the good in all of God’s creatures, and through that, a greater communion with God.  This Pharisee is quite a guy, and if I am honest, I can be a lot like him.

In contrast, we encounter this Tax Collector.  The Tax Collector is so separated from the community that he is physically separate, standing “far off” according to the text.  And his prayer is much less conversational than the Pharisee.  His prayer is almost despairing, a classic lament, and he beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Now, this guy may have been a sinner.  He may be a notorious sinner.  Tax Collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupiers and infamous for skimming off the top of their collections for their own benefit.  If you took a poll of 1st century Palestinians, many would have rather spent an evening on Beale Street with the stuck-up Pharisee instead of the Tax Collector.  But, Jesus, in that annoyingly Jesus kinda way, lifts up those who society marginalizes for the starring role of his stories.  This second man, while he probably made some very poor choices, is at least aware of them and in this moment is sorry for them.  And most importantly, he takes those choices, those sins, and gives them to God.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  In a moment of virtuous humility, the Tax Collector acknowledges his own emptiness, his own brokenness, his basic need for God and asks God for help.  

The Pharisee’s ultimate sin is not his obnoxious attitude toward others – although that is very obnoxious – but his lack of humility and his inability to acknowledge his own dependence on God.  Thank God I, I, am not like those people.  I do this and I do that, so I am great.  Not very humble at all.

So we return to the Mayor of Lake Wobegon, standing in the janitor’s closet.  In that moment, in a very faithful, Minnesotan kind of way, I would venture that she felt very humble.  Humiliated to be sure, but humbled, and reminded that even the mayor finds herself in the janitor’s closet from time to time.  How we exit said closet says a lot about who we are and whether we are a Pharisees or a Tax Collector.

Humility is a goal all of us can aspire to.  And real humility is not self-deprecating or insecure.  All of us have been given gifts and we should be proud of and confident in our achievements with those gifts.  But … but, the humble balance that confidence with self-awareness that those gifts are gifs from God and that those gifts are coupled with other areas where we could stand to improve and we are far from accomplished.  In the end, the humble realizes that we are really very needy and in order to truly succeed in this life, we need each other and we need God.

This week, take stock of where you are in need.  Give thanks for where you are strong, but find help where you are weak.  Humbly acknowledge that we can not do everything and we certainly can’t to do everything ourselves.  And instead of ostracizing ourselves in our humility, like the Tax Collector, may we huddle together, be resources for each other, and love each other for who we are, and not because we’re not, “those people.”  

We are all in need, but we can rejoice in the truth that all of our needs will be met; all of our needs will be met by a very generous God.  AMEN.

23 October 2013

Holy Reverie: 23 October 2013

Holy Reverie is the weekly clergy column in Calvary's electronic newsletter, the e-Pistle.  Subscribe today!

Halloween is almost upon us.  Store shelves are packed with candy, the television is teeming with monsters (even more than usual), and the kids are bouncing off the walls.  Calvary is celebrating the season with a Trunk-or-Treat and Monster Mash next Wednesday, October 30, beginning at 5:15.  I hope you and your favorite little ghouls and gobilns can join the fun - admission is one can of food to benefit MIFA.

When not monster-mashing, one of my favorite late October traditions is listening to Orson Welles' 1938 radio dramatization of "The War of the Worlds."  The production is so delightful and deliciously scary.  Moreover, I can easily understand how almost one million people believed the show was real!  The public radio program Radio Lab produced a documentary about the broadcast a few years ago: fascinating stuff.

Besides the obvious entertainment and historic value, "The War of the Words," the 1898 H.G. Wells novel or Welles' radio play, is a compelling meditation on fear.  Some characters run in hysterical terror from the alien threat, some stand the post and do their duty, while others run towards the fearsome creatures, wanting to learn more or lusting after their power.  How do we in 2013 react to fear?  Does fear govern how we lead our lives?  How is our post-modern society shaped by fear?  

William Wrigley, Jr., founder of the eponymous chewing gum company and past owner of the Chicago Cubs, once said, "a man's doubts and fears are his worst enemies."  While wisdom and caution are virtues, when they morph into fear, we risk prejudice, insularity, stuntedness, and ultimately violence.  

As people of faith, we can engage the world in a different way.  We can either hide behind our fear or step out in faith.  Faith assumes the goodness in the other, faith trusts in friendship and community, faith knows that all will be well.  At the end of "Worlds," (SPOILER ALERT!) the aliens are defeated, not by the ingenuity of humanity or some individual's heroism - all of that fails, but by the tiny microbes who share our earth and occasionally give us the sniffles.  Isn't God smart?

Have fun this Halloween, eat some candy, give someone a good scare.  But, as All Saints' Day dawns, perhaps we can let go of our fears and instead dare to have faith.