Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sermon October 9,2016: Help me! Thank You!

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

They tell me that the popular spiritual writer, Anne LaMott has two prayers.  Her morning prayer is: “Help me! Help me! Help me!” And they say her evening prayer is: “Thank you! Thank You! Thank You!”

I find it an interesting correlation to two Christian prayers that are expressed each week outside Lent in the Eucharist.  They are “Hosanna!” and “Alleluia!”  Hosanna means “Pray, Save!” And Alleluia means “Praise the Lord!”

These are also the two prayers we see in our gospel lesson today.  The ten lepers cry out to Jesus, “Son of man, have mercy on us.”  And then when one has been healed he comes back to Jesus and says, “Thank You.”

Help me! Thank you!

In a way we could categorize all prayer as either “Help me” or “Thank you.” In the prayers of the people we ask for help for ourselves, and for all the world.  Asking for help for all the world is a priestly ministry.  We are people who bring the good news of God to the world, and be bring the  needs of the world to God saying, “Help”.  The name of our service is the Holy Eucharist.  It means the Holy Thanksgiving.  And the prayer the priest says at the Communion is called “The Great Thanksgiving” .

I also find it interesting that the 12 step programs depend heavily on these two prayers.  Help is the prayer a person says when they realize that they are powerless to end their addiction over alcohol, drugs, food, sex, etc.  They cannot handle their problem alone.  And then to continue in this path a tool that the twelve steps people use is a gratitude list.  When things are hard, and let’s face it, unless you are in a rare number, for most of us there are hard things all the time, when things are hard we are advised to list the things for which we are thankful.  In the midst of life’s challenges it is centering and helpful to say thanks for the gifts we have received, relationships, health, our daily bread.

There was a well covered study in late 2015 that reported that a life of gratitude has many different health benefits.  It is supposed to help our relationships, help our physical and psychological and mental health, improves our sleep, enhances our empathy, reduces our aggression, and increases our self-esteem apparently. 

The thing I think that is most interesting is that neither of these prayers are easy to say.

We do not want to ask for help.  We want to feel that we are competent to solve our own problems.  We do not want to be a “burden” on anyone.  We do not want to lose “face” or “standing” before other people.  We do not want to be thought “helpless” or “unintelligent.”

When I lived next to a homeless shelter, I met many homeless people.  I often found that asking for help, and then following the simple requests of people offering help, were the two largest obstacles for people to exit homelessness.   Most of the people who are homeless fall into categories where there is help available.  Sometimes they are veterans.  Sometimes they are mentally ill.  Sometimes they are chronically addicted or disabled.  And frequently they know where they can go for help.  But they do not go, because they do not want to ask for help.  Or if they do ask for help, they have trouble following the guidelines.  Come to this appointment.  Go here to get your birth certificate.  Often that hardship is understandable, yet often it is the internal resistance to asking for help.  To ask for help is humbling.

In the Old Testament story we see a man who had trouble asking for help.  Naaman the mighty general from Ammon who suffered from leprosy, would have been willing to go through a dramatic ritualized healing with the prophet himself administering sufficient and impressive hand waving, but he was not willing to follow simple advice sent by messenger to bath in a stream.  The former would have preserved his sense of dignity and self worth.  The latter asks him to be humble and follow simple instructions.  He wanted to keep his pride intact.  But he had to receive help on the terms of the one who could help him.  He had to wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be healed.  The prophet choose not to come out and wave his hands.  The prophet preferred to do the Old Testament version of, “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.”

Asking for help is hard, yet a central insight of Christian teaching is that we humans find ourselves in a place where we are unable to heal ourselves.  We must ask for help if we are to be healed.  The cross and the resurrection become the medicine and the health humanity seeks.  Baptism and Eucharist are unique help that comes through Christ.  In surrendering to God’s power to save us we come to see all the deeds we do for the world as God’s act, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to show God’s gracious love.  All Good things are sent from heaven above as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it.

The lepers prayed for help.  And it is not just the healing of disease that they seek.  They desire to no longer be outcasts of the community.  Christ showing them mercy means that they can be included once more in the congregation.  As long as they are lepers even those who touch them cannot join the community gathered to worship. 

Christ did heal them.  And he sent them to the priest so that they could be re-admitted to the community of faith.  Yet only one of the ten, the despised foreigner,  the Samaritan, came to realize the true meaning of his being healed.   The others asked for help, they received what they needed, they will be re-admitted to the community of faith, but the true meaning of what has happened to them eludes them.  They are okay for now, and in the future they will go through the process again.

But the leper who returns to give thanks is not simply rejoicing that he has escaped a difficult situation. He has mastered the hard part of thank you. He has come to see beyond the gracious act to the gracious giver.  He has come to understand that he is not alone!  He has had an awakening.  He has come to look beyond the gift into the face of the giver.  He has discovered someone who cared for him.  He has made friends with God. 

Often in the South we are taught to say “Thank You.” We have a certain amount of time to return our thank you notes or we are rude.  We get it done out of obligation, in order not to be though bad people, but that expression of thanks out of obligation, or as a form of repayment is not what I am talking about.

The leper, I believe came to understand that he is in a relationship.  He has come to see that Jesus is his friend.  He comes to understand the ability of giving to others without expectation of return.  I suspect he adds a third prayer to our set of prayers.  He has said “Help me.”  He has said, “Thank you.”  And I imagine he know says, “Help me be like Jesus, Help me Help others.”

Something deep inside him has shifted.  He has gained a depth of spirit he formerly did not know.  His prayer “Thank You” has become a deep seated peace and joy.  His prayer “Help me” has become the presence of God’s healing power in the world.  He has become friends with all humanity, with Jesus, with God.

Sermon 20161016: The Persistence is the Blessing

This sermon whose text is the Parable of the Persistent Widow, Luke 18:1-8 proposes that prayer is life with God, and the blessing of prayer is not so much the answer received as the fellowship with God prayer represents.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Meditation for January 10, 2016

Murder in the Baptistry  Most people know that Thomas Beckett was murdered in the cathedral by nobles who thought they were doing the will of King Henry II.  But murder happens in churches all the time.  Murder of a sort, that is: by drowning in the waters of baptism. Baptism is the putting to death of the old human nature, weary and hopeless, and is the rebirth of a new humanity capable of beautiful spiritual qualities. Baptism brings spiritual evolution.
Water is the symbol of this transformation.  Water is a very strange substance.  We cannot live within it because we cannot breath.  We cannot live without it because we dry up and die.  Life first formed in the water covering the surface of this planet, until at some point creatures crawled out of it to live on dry land.  Each of us reinacts this same evolution when the water of our mother breaks and we are propelled out screaming into the world.  Like those ancient creatures we too leave the waters for an adventure in dry air.
This week we remember the Baptism of Christ when John the Baptist reluctantly plunged Jesus into the flowing waters of the Jordan River, thus making baptism holy for Christians, a way to join Christ in his life and ministry.  John preached a baptism of repentance, a change of direction. But the baptism of Christ changed baptism more than it changed Christ.  Baptism becomes the door to a new existence.  The old dies, the new is born.  This rebirth aspect of baptism is equally as ancient and is more important in my thinking than the washing-away-of-sins theology so much emphasized by so many modern expressions of Christianity.

One of the reasons I think traditional spirituality has lost so much appeal today is that I think the modern world underestimates the need for hope and the magnitude of human possibility.  Focusing on the material alone the modern ethos can fall into the trap of seeing us as creatures of little consequence in the vastness of the far flung universe.  But this belief in new life, of being reborn in the waters of baptism, understands the immensity of human possibility.  We can love.  We can know joy.  We can be creative.  We can dream.  The main thing we murder in the waters of baptism is pessimism about what we humans are in God's grand scheme of things. In Baptism God’s dreams for us come true.

Sermon 2nd Christmas 2016: Hello Jesus, Happy Birthday!

Sermon 20160103
St. John’s Church Getty Square
2nd Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 84 or 84:1-8

When we were decorating the church we got some of the workers to help us put up the wreath.  One of them was named Jesus, and jokingly asked him whether his birthday was Dec. 25th.  To my delight it is his birthday! and I came to understand that boys born on Dec. 25th are often named Jesus in some countries.  I imagine this makes Christmas strange, it is both your birthday and the birthday of your savior.  It makes Christmas into a hybrid celebration, half feast of the Incarnation, half anniversary of one’s birth!

Today is a bit of a hybrid celebration.  Today is the Second Sunday after Christmas, it is also the 10th day of Christmas, and on this Sunday we usually remember in some way the Holy Family.  We remember Joseph taking the child and fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.  Or we remember Jesus being taken into the temple for his redemption from God being the first born male child.  We celebrate the reality that all of us are not just individuals but that we are social creations greatly influenced by the love we receive in our growing up, and this is not different for the life of Jesus.

However, it is a hybrid celebration, because of the pastoral accommodation to those who do not generally keep midweek feasts.  You see this Wednesday is the feast of the Epiphany, and we will have our Wednesday service at noon if you’d like to come..  Epiphany is one of the major feasts of the year, yet people have fallen out of the habit of making a point to go to church that day.  The Roman church in this country even celebrates Epiphany on this Sunday.  Our church does not, but it gives us the option of making today a hybrid service.  We can use the Gospel Reading for that Feast.  Today’s gospel is about the coming of the wise men, the feast of the Epiphany.

It is an important feast because it represents a major spiritual development.  The prophets foretold that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses would become the God of all people.  That the nations would stream to Jerusalem bearing gifts to worship the one true holy and living God.  The psalms teach us that all people will say, “In Jerusalem was I born” When the Magi from the East, probably Zoroastrians from Persia, come, they bear gifts and they worship Jesus.  Jesus is recognized by foreign wise men as the fulfillment of prophecy, the fulfillment of a spiritual promise, as a new step forward in the unfolding of humanity’s encounter with the divine.  And the star which led them there indicates that something within the fabric of existence points it out, shows it to be true.

It is interesting also that humanity resists the unfolding of this truth.  Herod tries to use the wise men to find Jesus so that he can kill him.  There are many people who have become so enamored, who have so learned to draw some satisfaction from the divisions that beset humanity, the individual grasping for power and wealth that overtakes and motivates them, that they wish to resist the spiritual invitation of God for all humanity to become one family where all are valued, all are cared for, all are important. 

As I prayed about today’s worship I was overawed by the devotion of the wise men to follow this star to Bethlehem.  They probably had to take leave from their job.  They had the means I guess to take a few months off work to travel.  The baby was probably about two years old, so presumably the star appeared two years ago.  They then had to figure out what the star meant, had to prepare for their journey, and had to follow that star.  Of course it is a fantastical idea.  How does one determine what house a star stands over?  Even the wise men had trouble, which is why they had to go to ask Herod where the child was to be born.  But their determination to solve this riddle, their willingness to follow this star, their desire to see the one this star foretold is amazing to me.  It shows devotion and willingness and wisdom and courage.

How do we follow the star to find the incarnate Christ?  How do we discover the birth of Jesus in our own lives?  What are the signs we look for?  Christ himself gave us the clue.  He said whenever you do something for the least of these my brethren, you do it to me. When Christ was alive he ministered to the needy, the hungry, the lonely, the outcast, the sick, the sex workers, the enemy collaborators, foreigners, sinners.  If we are to follow our star to find the incarnate Lord we will go to these same people.  We will find the incarnate God wherever there is opportunity for us to befriend those who are needy.

I have been amazed at how many groups of people there are who are doing things to befriend people in dire situations.  We had a group called the Alternatives to Violence project meet in our church.  They run workshops teaching young adults and adults how to respond to situations using alternatives to violence.  We have the Sharing Community next door which feeds people who are hungry and it is great to have volunteers who helped there last Sunday.  At the Yonkers Thanksgiving Celebration we had a  young man speak about his club Youth Giving Back which writes letters to prisoners, does peanut butter drives for the hungry, and engages in ways of helping those who are in need.  Nearby we have Fessenden House which is a ¾’s house for people struggling with various issues.  It is run by two Episcopal brothers of St. Gregory.  Episcopal Relief and Development is a wonderful organization because all of the relief work it does is coordinated with the local church so that it is real relationship building.

One danger to charity, however, needs to be mentioned.  Giving to the poor is not what Christ means.   It is not enough to try to “fix” the needy,   to alleviate their poverty so that they become like us.  First of all, that is not possible.  People are often in dire straits because they have been deeply damaged.  There are people who will never barring a miracle be able to become so called productive members of society.  We are not called as Christians to fix people.  We are called to befriend them.  This is why Christian service is about establishing relationships with those who are needy.  It is not romantic.  It is not easy.  It has challenges.  It causes us to look at ourselves deeply and ask why do I find it hard to work with someone who is encountering such hardship, who has such deep wounds?    Just as the journey of the wise men was arduous, so too is Christian service and relationship, when we take it seriously.  It is not child’s play. 

Yet it is also deeply rewarding.  We come to see people as real four dimensional people who exist.  We come to learn their stories.  We begin go uncover their deep beauty.  We begin to truly understand that when Christ took humanity he took the humanity of all of us, including those who are deeply wounded.

I think it is important for every Christian to give to support the worship of the church, to give also to the needy.  But giving is no substitute for actively putting our person in relationship with those who deeply need our friendship.  I think there is no true way to discover the Christ within us if we do not discover the Christ within those we are called to serve.

The truth is by serving those who are in deep need we become more aware of our deep need.  By learning to love those who are deeply wounded we can begin also to love the wounded dark places in our own souls.  We begin to see that the star which leads us to those we are called to serve is also directly over our heads, for Christ came to save us too, and as we minister to our neighbor, Christ is ministering to us.

Why did the wise men meet Jesus and then go home after a short stay?  Because they understood this truth I am talking about.  Jesus takes us to himself.  The truth  is all of us have a birthday on Dec. 25th.  The truth is all of us are named “Jesus”. The truth is he is with us always, even unto the end of the age.