Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Different Understanding

PROPERS:         PROPER 16, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 13:10-17

ONE SENTENCE:        The Law was offered as a gift from God for the ordering                                      of culture; as culture evolves, our understanding of  the                                        needs of culture change.

            I have a memory of a quiet, soft-spoken, diminutive man preaching a very courageous sermon.

            The preacher was a United Methodist minister.  His name was John Cook, and he probably influenced my preaching more than any other person.

            His sermon was during the mid-1960s.  It was a particularly volatile time in Mississippi.  The presenting issue in this sermon was the blue lawsin Mississippi.  Those laws, of course, required that all commercial establishments were to be closed on Sundays.

            The Mississippi Legislature was considering repealing those laws – thereby opening Sundays to greater freedom for the public, but also unleashing the commercial energy of business.

            It was a particularly controversial issue in the conservative, evangelical state. There was a swirling debate around the potential legislative action.

            Preachers from the conservative traditions were pressured to oppose the legislative action.  It was assumed the voices from conservative pulpits would carry the day – and the effort to repeal the laws would fail.

            The political speculators had misjudged John Cook.  And they misjudged his understanding of scripture… and Jesus’ own words.

            The text Brother Cook chose for his sermon was much like our passage today. The precise passage was Luke 6:1-5 – but the tension was identical with today’s gospel passage.  The tension was associated with the Fourth Commandment to Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

            In his sermon, the issue was the disciples plucking grain as they walked through a wheat field.  This apparently flew in the face of legalistic interpretations of the Law. Jesus and his disciples were confronted about this illicit behavior by the Pharisees.

            Brother Cook cited Jesus’ words in resolving the conflict: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

            His point was this:  The Sabbath was created for the good of humanity; not the other way around.

            Jesus makes that same point, though more indirectly, today.

            A poor woman had been handicapped and in misery for 18 years – her back bent and twisted, leading her to be stooped over.  Jesus released her from that infirmity.

            But a leader of the synagogue – likely with a very strict understanding of what God required – confronted him.  “Why do you heal on the Sabbath?” he asked in so many words. “There are six other days of the week in which healing can take place.”

            Jesus responded tersely, with his own comparison and teaching.

            It is something we should contemplate today.  It is not God who changes over time; it is our understandingof God’s ways which change over time. God continues to reveal himself in our lives.  And, bit-by-bit, we grow in our insight of what is right today.

            Does anyone here think that the exceptions to the prescribed will of God ended with the close of the New Testament?  Does anyone think that the expansiveness of God’s love was limited to bringing Gentiles into the community of faith?

            A couple of examples…

            For many, many years, the sacramental act of confirmation was theadmission into Holy Communion. Confirmation was understood to completethe sacrament of baptism.  Many of you probably remember those days; I know I do.

            But in 1971, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church issued the Pocono Statement.  That statement by the Bishops redefined admission to communion. They endorsed what is now the teaching of the Church: Holy Baptism is the full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church.

            From that point on – in a new understanding – baptism alone was sufficient for admission to communion.

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            Likewise, the Church struggled mightily with the issue of divorce. Jesus had been unequivocal in his condemnation of divorce – allowing one exception in one passage.

            Over the years, the Episcopal Church had banned divorcees from communion – in some cases, for a limited time.  And remarriage was not an option within the Church.

            But the Church reflected and prayed on the pastoral implications associated with that prohibition.  And recognizing the spiritual toll of such a practice, the Church was prompted to change.
            Because of a different understanding, people whose lives have been marked by the pain of a shattered relationship can now come to the Church for healing and renewal. It is not the practice of the Church to act like nothing happened, but to walk with those who have experienced such a loss and to help them find the path forward.

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            The Church will – until the end of time – seek to understand God’s will. Our discernment is like the peeling of an onion – the deeper we go, the different layers we encounter.

            This, of course, does not mean that anything goes.  But it does mean that the Church is to pray, study, reflect, discuss and seek the mind of the Spirit.  We do this in our own hearts and in the councils of the Church – from the local Vestry all the way up to the great world-wide conferences of the Church. Our Nicene Creed emerged from such a Council.

            In it all, we seek to reflect God’s will, recognizing that we are not perfect. But our failures are in the hands of a loving God.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Facets of Division

PROPERS:         PROPER 15, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 12:49-56

ONE SENTENCE:        Division is a natural result of truth and falseness;                                               between good and evil; between one pathway and                                                  another.      

            Nora and I recently had the opportunity to walk on some very sacred soil – a place I had longed to visit.  That sacred land was beaches of Normandy – where divisions could not have been more stark or appropriate.

            Specifically, we visited the beaches on which American troops landed on June 6, 1944 – Utah and Omaha beaches, and Pont do Hoc. British and Canadian troops landed further to the east, on Sword, Juno and Gold beaches.

            Under stormy skies, with rough seas, and facing the withering fire of the enemy from the dune gun placements, the brave men came ashore – 75 years ago.

            The scenes are very placid now, but one can envision the drama of D-Day. One-hundred fifty-six thousand troops landed there that day. The scene had a certain moral clarity to it.  It was the line of demarcation between good and evil.

            The division was clear.  And there was reason for it. Good reason.

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            When I was in my first year of seminary, one of the few courses we took during the entire year was New Testament.

            The professor was British, with a dry, droll sense of understatement.

            We had to do a paper explaining – through various technical means – the points of a particular teaching by Jesus.  It was much like our gospel lesson today – subject to interpretation.

            In writing my paper, I had the temerity to say, “What Jesus was meaning to say…”. After those words, the professor wrote in bright red pen, “Oh, really?”

            His point was made.

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            Today’s gospel lesson prompts some speculation on our part.  What was Jesus saying when he said he came to bring division? What did the fire he was bringing mean? Why would family members be pitted against one another?

            This seems to be so at-odds with our concept of a tender and mildJesus; one who is soft and undemanding. We squirm a bit with the images of a divisive, fire-brand savior.

            But perhaps… just perhaps, he was talking about the natural result of his message and his ministry.  Not that such division and separation would be good – though in certain circumstances the clarity between good and evil would be very helpful.

            Keep in mind that Jesus’ message was very-much counter to the prevailing culture of the day.  His words were much like the prophets which preceded him in the previous six centuries. He was calling the people to find and live the essenceof the Law – which he summarized in the words I read following the Collect for Purity of Heart: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it:  Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

            The teaching which he offered, and the manner in which he ministered, flew in the face of prevailing norms in his culture.  He invited people to decide for themselves – not in a violent, militaristic sense – which pathway they would travel.

            Some would follow, some would not.  Hence, there would be division.

            The division grew, for good or ill, as the young Jesus movement began to be separated from its native Jewish roots.  The division during the early centuries of the Christian era led to mass persecutions and martyrdoms at the hands of the powerful Roman empire.

            And, likewise, there was unhelpful division in the days of new definitionsof Christianity – with the Roman Church, and some governments, persecuting those who had different visions of the church. Henry VIII and Bloody Mary come to mind.

            All that was part of the Reformation, that crucible period which the church endured beginning in the 16thcentury. The movement to reform the church raged across Europe. Rulers rose and fell as a consequence.

            But, it had both its positive and negative effects.  Yes, it brought division between groups – and in some cases with violent, tragic consequences – but it also brought about more clarity within the Jesus movement.

            Fast forward to the modern era.  That movement to reform the church has led, I think, to greater division – not all of which is bad.  I am one of the dissenting voices who sees the hundreds of denominations and movements not as a tragedy, but as a means by which many may find connection with a savior that can touch many lives from a variety of directions.

            The division continues today.  It is as fresh as the headlines and as new as the politics.  Once the division was unleashed so many years ago, there is no way to guess where it will go.  We are constantly defining our faith.

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            And let’s put it on a personal level.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, the truth and power of Jesus’ words cause division deep inside our spirits.

            As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

            It is that internal division – a portion of which we may call our conscience– which creates a healthy, holy division within us.  It can guide us through some rough spots of life, and also convict us when we decide we move away from the waywe are called to travel.

            That division creates holy space within us and is helpful to us.

            Division, then, is not something that is necessarily destructive.  It is a natural byproduct of the truth we hear in Jesus words.

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            Oh, yes, go back to the Normandy beaches again.  Despite the huge toll of death and bloodshed those beaches witnessed, we can be ever grateful for the clear division which prompted that action.  It was division that was as clear as night and day, as good and evil, as life and death.

            Some divisions – internal, external, global or particular, as with a surgeon’s knife – are ultimately healing.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Essence of Prophecy

PROPERS:         PROPER 14, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 ISAIAH 1:1, 10-20

ONE SENTENCE:        The call of God to his people is a call to righteousness                                         and not lip-service or superficiality.  

            I love to mentally collect political quotations, especially when they are humorous.

            For example, Adlai Stevenson was asked about a full-page letter Norman Vincent Peale had published in The New York Times, opposing the candidacy of Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy.  Peale had contended in that advertisement that Kennedy would do the bidding of the Vatican, if he were elected. Stevenson, twice a Democratic nominee for president, disagreed, of course.

            Stevenson commented in response: “I have always considered the epistles of Paul to be appealing. But I find the epistle of Peale to be appalling.”

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            Likewise, Senator Bob Dole – known for his rapier -like wit – looked at the head table of a large dinner.  At the head table sat Jimmy Carter, Jerry Ford, and Richard Nixon – all former presidents.  Dole observed: “Look – See No Evil, Speak No Evil, and Evil.”

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            Along that same line was a comment that Harry Truman made.  When his supporters urged him to give ‘em hell, he responded: “I never gave them hell.  I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

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            That was the position that the ancient prophets found themselves in.  

            We often think of prophets as some sort of clairvoyants who peered into the future and foretold things that were going to come to pass.

            Hardly. The prophets such as Isaiah, whose words we heard today, Jerimiah, Ezekiel, and even Elijah and Elisha spoke God’s truth to a people who didn’t want to hear it.  They were usually alienated and lived outside of the mainstream. Some were even punished for their faithfulness in proclaiming God’s vision.

            Today’s first lesson comes from Isaiah.  He is one of the three major prophets of the Old Testament, along with Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  He prophesied in Jerusalem and Judah in the days after Assyria had laid waste to the Northern Kingdom, Israel.

            He spoke words of judgement to the leaders in Jerusalem and said that, because of the faithlessness of the people, Jerusalem and Judah would fall, too.

            He did not sugar-coat his words.  He compared Judah to Sodom and Gomorrah.  He spoke of the false and superficial piety of the people’s religiosity. He said that God would ignore their pleas for mercy, and that they must turn toward good – doing justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.

            This was not a political statement.  It was God’s word.  It was the essence of the Law – over, under, around and through the Holy Scriptures. And because of the people’s ignoring those basic tenets of the covenant, the kingdom of Judah would fall.  Just as the kingdom of Israel had fallen.

            When we are talking about prophecy, we are talking about something that is grounded in the very idea of who God is.  It is grounded in his righteousness.  It is founded in his words of justice, peace, righteousness, concern for the poor, the widowed and the orphan.  Jesus laid claim to those same values in his Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.

            Those people who have dared to speak truth to powerhave done so and paid an enormous price.  Think of Jesus, Thomas a’ Becket, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the countless anonymous women who stood by their faith in the Roman persecutions.  

            By their very nature, prophets rankle the souls of the people.  They point out to us things about ourselves that make us very uncomfortable.  Their perspectives make us squirm.  They prompt us to examine ourselves – to look within, even though we may resist it for a time.

            Sadly, prophets are like artists – their greatness, their truth are generally not recognized until long after they are gone.

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            That was largely the life of Isaiah. And Jeremiah… and Ezekiel… and Elijah… and Elisha… and the minor prophets, also known as The Twelve.  Their words were not – for the most part – words of comfort.  Unless, of course, the people turned from their unholy ways. Then, indeed, there was good news.

            Prophets today remind us of the same things – placing trust in things other than God; many people forgetting about the poor, the sick, the widowed, and the orphans.  Many have lost capacity to care for the ger, the Hebrew word for a sojournerin the land.  The modern-day prophets remind the people of God’s expectation that holy justicebe done.

            And let me be clear:  These are not political statements, these are straight out of our Holy History.

            Yes, there is great discomfort when the people hear the words of the prophets – and through them, the word of God.  But, as we see with Isaiah, that is nothing new.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A Life of Touching Others

PROPERS:         PROPER 13, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 10:38-42 (The Gospel Lesson from Proper 11, Year C)  

ONE SENTENCE:        Sometimes the most meaningful life comes from the                                             example of Mary.

            I am asking your indulgence this morning.

            The Gospel lesson today is from Luke 12 – which is a fine lesson.

            But I am asking you to understand why I will preach on Luke 10 – the passage assigned two weeks ago.  I did not preach on that lesson that day, and events of the last week have made the passage very relevant for me, and I hope it will be for you.

            The passage I have focused on is the one about the tension between the sisters, Martha and Mary, when Jesus came to visit their home.  Hear the words again, from Luke, Chapter 10:

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

            The Lord was visiting their house.  Martha was scurrying about, tending to all the myriad details of hosting a dinner for an important guest and his friends. She did not have Emily Post to rely on. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on every word.

            Eventually, Martha becomes annoyed by her sister’s inattentiveness to the demands of entertaining a group of important guests. She decides to appeal to Jesus, and seek his intervention.

            "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."

            Jesus’ response surprises her:  "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

            Let those words sink in.

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            This past Sunday morning, my friend and diocesan colleague, the Reverend Chuck Culpepper, died in his sleep.  He was 69 years of age.

            Chuck and I had known each other for nearly 60 years. He had been my patrol leader in Boy scout Troop 1 in Meridian.  He was a high school classmate of my brother at Meridian High, and was a college classmate of his at Millsaps College.

            He served in the United States Navy – and loved to regale us with his stories of being at sea.  To put it mildly, he had a wonderful sense of humor and could tell remarkable stories.

            He went to Ole Miss Law School and practiced law for a while.  But he came to know that his deepest joy was working with young people in the church.  So, he went to Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.

            He was ordained deacon and priest.  He served his curacy at a church in his hometown of Meridian and then joined the diocesan staff about the same time I did.  We were in many staff meetings together and his presence always lightened the room.

            When Bishop Duncan Gray, III, decided to start a congregation for atypical Episcopalians, such as young adults, people on the margins, and street people, he tapped Chuck. The congregation had rented space in a vacant warehouse in downtown Jackson.

            Chuck was still the priest there when he died 13 years later.  And he was serving to two other small congregations – in nearby Brandon and Terry.

            Chuck’s congregations never flourished in a typical sense.  His main congregation, St. Alexis, had a small membership and depended on diocesan funds.  But, he touched hundreds if not thousands of lives in transformative ways.

            I used to refer to Chuck as the oldest living teenager.  He had the energetic spirit of a 16-year-old.  He guided many diocesan programs, including Happening, Vocare, Camp Bratton Green, and Winter Solstice.  He was the founding leader of the Young Adult Discernment Committee, and helped guide some very promising aspirants to seminary and ordination.  I worked with him on the Commission on Ministryand valued his wisdom, wit, and insight.

            He was always dressed like he was heading to camp, and not as an older leader of the Episcopal Diocese.  His playfulness and ordinary ways connected with whole generations of budding and searching Christians.

            His ministry could be encapsulated by his presence, his listening ear, his love of those with whom he worked, and his playfulness. The various social media sites have been overwhelmed by testimonials of those whose lives he has touched. His ministry reminded me of the saying, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.”

            Chuck, by his very nature, was a Mary– a human being, not a human doing.

            I look in the mirror. I reflect on our time together. There is much I have to learn from his example.

            My active ministry, I now see, was more like Martha. Always busy.  Always on the road.  Always in meetings.  Always promoting accountability, responsibility, and following the canons of the church, focusing on the seriousness of the work.

            I now see that I was a Martha, the diocesan bean-counter; human doing, not a human being.

            Two lives cannot be reduced to such simple descriptions. As Garrison Keillor once said, “We are all complex novels, and people tend to judge us by our dust jackets.” Nevertheless, there is truth to be considered.

            The words of Jesus speak so clearly to the life of my friend, Chuck, and they speak to me of my own ministry.  He was willing to sit at Jesus’ feet, with countless others who wanted to hear the words of life.

            Perhaps you may hear something, too, in Jesus’ words. The Kingdom of God will not be built by those who subscribe to the philosophy of the bumper sticker:  Jesus is coming.  Look busy!

            It will be built by those like my friend, Chuck. People who listen.  People who care.  People who love.  People who will sit with those who are searching.  People who are light of heart. People who know how to laugh and how to play.