Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Sunday, April 29: Easter 5B: Life in Christ is like a Team of Carpenters

Sermon 20120429
Easter 5B RCL
Written for St. John's Church, Getty Square, Yonkers

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Mr. Smith and his crew built several of the houses in our neighborhood when I was just a child.  I was fascinated to walk by and see a house rise from the ground.  First there came the foundation, usually built of cinderblock and a poured concrete base.  That happened before Mr. Smith and his crew arrived.  But after the frame of the house would rise up toward the sky.  There were four in the team and I would watch them work.  They did not talk much.  They worked in concert, measuring and sawing and hammering.  They would build sections and then put them up and nail them together.  Once the house was completely framed the roof was nexted because it protected the work from the elements.  Then tar paper would go around the outside, then the siding, whatever that would be.  The siding was to keep the vandals out.

What struck me was the smoothness of their work.  They were a team.  They were on the same page.  They worked not like four individuals, but like a single force, raising up an edifice.  If you pointed to a certain two by four, or a certain rafter, they would most likely be hard pressed to say who had done what.  They did the work together, their reputation was flawless and they never lacked work.

Today's gospel teaches us about the love that should be between Christians, and the fruit that we should bear by being united into the body of Christ, made a new people.  Mr. Smith's team of carpenters are a living symbol of that.

Christ said that we should love one another so that we are one, just as he and the Father are one, and we give glory to God when we bear good fruit.  It is a connection and unity that is truly profound.  The carpenters represent that unity for me, and their work grows out of that unity.

Yet the image used in the Gospel, that of a vine, is even more profound than that of a team of carpenters.  Jesus compares the community to a vine.  He is the vine, we are the branches.  We are joined to him, and we derive our energy, our nutrients from him.  As the water and nutrients flow from the soil and the leaves into the branch, so our spiritual nurture comes from Christ.  When separated from the vine we wither, dry up, and die.

When we bear no fruit we lose our purpose in being, to produce grapes.  The connection to Christ is pointless.  To be truly part of the vine means both to receive nutrient and to produce fruit.  If either does not happen we are somehow not our true selves..

I had a little fun trying to think of modern parables for this relationship.  It is as though Christ is the power line and we are the bulbs.  Not attached to him we give off no light.  It is like Christ is the water main and we are the faucets.  Unattached we provide no water.

For St. John, our patron, and the writer of today's gospel, what made Christ, Christ, was his being so intimately connected to the Father, and doing the works of the Father, thus enjoying fully the mutual love of the Father, and showing forth God's glory in the world.  There was one energy in the two of them.  The Son did the very works of the Father.  The Father and the Son were one.

As we approach the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, we see that this teaching of the Vine is foreshadowing life in the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is what makes the vine and the branches alive, it is the energy that binds the Son and the Father, and that life lived is so completely an expression of God that the Holy Spirit has come to be understood as one of the very Persons of our Trinity.

Our unity with God, our doing the good things that flow out of God, are the work of the Trinity.  We tend to associate the various traditional actions of God to various persons of the Trinity.  We tend to associate creation with the Father, our Salvation with the Son, and our ongoing life in God with the Holy Spirit.  However, the three are so united that if we are to follow the theological heritage closely we will not assign certain tasks to only one person.  The belief is that the Father and the Spirit are both doing the work of our Salvation  with the Son.  The Son and the Spirit are both doing the work of creation with the Father.  And both the Father and the Son are working in us when we are energized by the Holy Spirit.

The trinity itself is in perfect harmony in the work the trinity does.

How do we allow ourselves to enter into the unity of the Holy Spirit?  What can we do so that our life reflects the glory of God.  What effort is required on our part?

The traditional, and I think wise answer, is that there is nothing we can do.  No act of ours can cause this to happen.  It is grace.  It is gift.

On our side we must desire it, not as a personal possession, but desire to share it.  We must allow God to free us from the prison of self, of radical individuality, of self focus, self absorption, in order to become part of the community of love.  And there are those who even say this surrender to love, is it self a gift.

My desire for St. John's and for all churches is that we grow in this grace.  That God give us this grace, so that we can work together like Mr. Smith and his carpenters.  So that the outside world can see that we love one another.  So that we are inspired to  make a difference in our community reaching out to all those in any hurt or need.  My desire is that when people think of St. John's Church, there is no doubt in their mind that we are disciples of Christ, that Christ is working in us.  My desire is that the clusters of our generosity and love are big and fat like clusters of grapes hanging heavy on a vine.

And MY desire must be surrendered if God is to achieve that.   When I surrender my desire for  the gift of humility I allow God to work in me.  We as a church must discern the direction we believe God desires for us, and be prepared to surrender what we might choose for ourselves.  It is asked of all of us.  Read Scripture.  Study the Tradition.  Pray without ceasing.  Be generous.  Be not afraid.  Love one another.  Somewhere as we seek and desire to be faithful to that proces, it will be God who causes us to bear the fruit God desires, and God's goodness will be known in Yonkers, New York, throughout the world.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday, April 15, 2012:Locked Doors

Why was the door shut? The text tells us that the disciples were afraid of the Jews. They had persecuted and killed Jesus. Were they next?

Why do we lock doors? What does that say about the world we are in? We know only too well that there are people who will come and take our things, or perhaps do harm to us. So we lock doors. I hear occasionally of people who come from neighborhoods where people do not lock their doors. Of course, some communities have walls and gates. Treyvon Martin was in a gated community.

And then there are borders around countries. I know a woman who was not allowed to go into England because the organization that invited her to do a workshop had not applied for the rite visa, and she was not allowed to go into England. They put her on the next airplane to New York.

The reason we create security is because we feel unsafe. We cannot trust other poeple, and we use our efforts to build security. Our feeling unsafe, whether justified or not, displays our fear. And we are afraid because we have only to often experienced the cruelty of this humanity we call our family. We become afraid of each other.

There are many ways to be locked in a room.
Sometimes we are stuck in a job because we do not know if we could make a living if we left.
Some are locked in a job because they have a medical condition and they cannot risk changing insurance.
Some people are locked in fear of their neighborhood. They cannot afford to live in an area where the streets are safe, so they must always worry about their kids and children.
Some are locked in relationships which are taxing and difficult.
Sometimes it is as simple as feeling all alone as someone cares for a loved one in medical need.
Sometimes it can be struggling with children who have made bad choices and the heart is broken.
Sometimes we have a disease, or an addiction, or a pattern of behavior and we feel locked in.
Sometimes we lock ourselves in doors of resentment. We blame others, and judge others, and are angry at others for making our life unsatisfactory. This is perhaps one of the most dangerous locked doors of all, because it distracts us from what God can do for us, and it distracts us from our part in our dilemma.

I think many of us are locked in a room spiritually. We fill our minds with images from the consumer culture we live in, and we have come to believe that our happiness is based on having stuff and the leisure to enjoy it. So we want more and more stuff, and we watch more and more media. And the very media which is supposed to provide us leisure increases the pressure by showing us more and more things we need to be happy, to be beautiful, to be sophisticated, to be cool. When we fill our mind with the messages of consumer culture, sometimes we do not even realize that someone else turned the key in our door.

When the disciples were gathered in the room, they had the doors closed, and they had reason to be afriad. Their ideas of God's kingdom was a threat to the Romans who quite frankly liked ruling the world. And because if the Romans felt threatened the Jewish leaders did too. They had some modicum of power because the Romans allowed them to have it, and they needed to keep the nation in line to hold onto their problem.

Christ's teaching and actions declared the kingdom of God, declared love, declared breaking down barriers, declared caring for those who were oppressed caused his death. The Romans needed to put an end to this, and his disciples wondered if it would stop there. Would those authorities come after them too, just to be sure?

The doors were locked. Tight. And they were hiding.

The resurrected Lord was not kept out by those locks. Jesus came right into the midst of their fears, and said "Peace be with you." He showed them his wounds. And the disciples rejoiced.

That rejoicing was not simply the happiness of being reunited with their teacher and Lord; they also rejoiced because in Jesus's greeting they also found forgiveness for abandoning Jesus during his passion.

The next thing he said to the disciples was that just as the father had sent him he now sends us. And then the strange thing happens. I hope you noticed it. This is the first day of the Week. Our story takes place on EASTER day and Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them. IN John's Gospel the day of ressurection is also the day of Pentecost!

We see that Christ not only sends us out into the world to do his work, he breathes his very spirit, his power, into our lungs. Breath is such a powerful image. Our bodies need food, and they need oxygen. Jesus gives us his body, his blood, and his breath to empower us to do what he asks us to do.

Just as Jesus rose from the dead with his body. So he wants us to use our spirituality as the fuel for our bodies, so that we can walk out the locked doors to do his work.

Also when he breath on us, breath is also the vehicle by which words travel through air. To be nourished by the Spirit means also to be nourished by the wisdom of the apostles. It means encountering and learning from scripture. It means encountering and learning from the great Christian teachers throughout the ages. It means holding a conversation together to discern the way forward, drawing on the gifts of all.

When we fill our lives with these messages from people who seek good, they unlock the doors our consumer individualistic culture closes on us.

We no longer see comfort, or wealth, or beauty, or sophistication as our good above all other. We know that God who is love is our good above all other. And we go into the world to love and support others. Yes, we will encounter resistance, because so many other people are afraid, just as they were afraid of Jesus. But the resurrection teaches us that this is the most important.

We open all the locked doors of our lives.
We design our lives not based on fear but based on faith and hope.
We do not make decisions based on the values of the media, but based on the values of God.
We let the new life of Christ enter into our real life. That is what salvation is.
We allow God to take away our resentments so that we can discover the wonderful things that the Risen Lord can do for us.

We leave our locked doors, and by God's grace, we know the joy of who God meant us to truly be as we minister to a world which longs for it.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Choosing God's Vision of our Life

Sermon 20120304
St. John's Getty Square
2 Lent rcl year b

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

My college used to have a motto: Bonum inimicum semper optimo. Which literally translated means "The good is always the enemy of the best."

It was meant to cause us young college students recently released from the constant supervision of home, and who had come from schools where we were the top students, to pay attention to our work with our newfound freedom of the college dormitory, and to not be complacent because all of our fellow students used to be the cream of their crop also. Do not assume that on your coasting effort you will rise to the top.

Of course, if one is a perfectionist this advice might be dangerous. I had a friend who used to say "done is better than excellent", meaning it was better to do the best you could now rather than delay until later pursuing the ever allusive perfection. Pefectionist have another struggle.

But today, I think our lessons ask us to pay attention to the reality that we often aim our sights at a goal far below that which God desires to give us. In fact, I think these days we often do not think at all about what we are aiming at all. If we neglect spiritual study, if we neglect self-emptying prayer, if we neglect practicing the presence of God, we might forget that we are on a spiritual endeavor at all. Lent is meant to awaken our reality to the truth we are on a spiritual quest.

Giving up chocolate. Giving up smoking. Whatever. If giving it up does not remind us that God is at work in our lives and we need God more than anything else, we might as well not give anything up at all.

We often think God is up to far less than God really is.

That is what Abraham thought in our first story. Abraham was a wandering cattle owner who God had promised to bless. Abraham thought God was going to just give him a peaceful life, a successful business, a happy family, and some land he could call his own. Now he was very happy with this idea. He really felt he needed all these things. I guess he felt he needed them for the same reason we often feel we need them. When we have all these things, peaceful, healthy life, enough money -- ignoring of course the question, what is enough -- a little house with the mortgage paid off, and people in our lives, we too will be happy.

But God has more in store for Abraham. God announces that Abraham will be the father of many nations. We as Christians believe God already knew that Abraham would be the father of Jesus, and through Jesus the spiritual father of billions of people, of the new humanity.

Abraham wanted the spiritual good, but God knew what he wanted for Abraham was the spiritual best.

Peter falls into the same trap. In the passage just preceding the one today, Peter announces that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and Jesus tells Peter that this was an inspired utterance. Then Jesus announces for the first time that he must suffer, be rejected and die in order to rise again. What God intends for humanity means Jesus must walk down a very hard path. Peter take Jesus aside and admonishes him, that this is not true. No, no, Jesus, what you will do is be a king. You will cast out the Romans, give peace to our kingdom, make our nation prosperous, and the people will be healthy, happy and successful. You are not going to die, Jesus, you are going to fulfill MY expectations.

Then Jesus shocks us. He says to Peter, "Get behind me Satan. You have set your mind on earthly things, not heavenly things."

We are surprised that Jesus speaks thus. We even feel a little sorry for Peter. I often in the past pondered this behavior, and then I realized something recently which cracked it open for me.

Peter had become Satan because Peter actually said things to Jesus that tempted him. Jesus did not want to suffer. Jesus did not want to be rejected. Jesus did not want to die. Jesus would rather have lived his life in peace, healthy, happy, content and successful. Jesus was truly vulnerable on the subject. Peter truly spoke the words of Satan, the temptor. Peter suggested to Jesus that we could do what we desire, rather than what God desires for us. Jesus, said I can be content with so just a successful life in this world.

The reality is when we became Christians we adopted a vision of humanity greater than one ever imagined before. We no longer see our goal as a successful life. We see our goal as the ability to live out the very qualities of God. We can love with passion and all we have. We can be creative and do beautiful great things. We can know a peace and a joy in self-giving that those who pursue wealth, if they only understood one little bit how wonderful it is, would give up everything they have to attain it.

Satan desires to hide this from us. Maybe you do not believe in a personal being named Satan, I am not sure that I do myself. But I do believe that there is a constant force in this world which tries to distract us by hook and by crook from the vision God has for our life.

We can be humble creatures, honest to ourselves and others about who we really are, faults and talents, blemishes and fine features. We can desire the good for others, not judging them, yet also finding the occasions to say what needs to be said in love and kindness. We can see when others desiring our good admonish us, and we can open our hearts to it. We can organize our lives to take care of the poor and the needy, we can organize our actions to pursue justice and fairness for people. We can do this when we open our hearts to a vision of life that is focused on God, not earth.

This path is not an easy one. It does involve taking up our cross. It will involve times of hardship, perhaps suffering. However, in choosing Christ over the world, we open ourselves to more. To what God desires for us.
My prayer for myself and all of us, is that God will open our hearts to glimpse a vision of the life desired for us, and give us steadfast trust in the divine grace to accomplish it..