Sunday, December 29, 2019

An Insight into Grace

PROPERS:          CHRISTMAS 1, YEAR A      
TEXT:                 ISAIAH 61:10 – 62:3; JOHN 1:1-18

ONE SENTENCE:        The “scandal of grace” symbolized in this season                                                overcomes our common brokenness and invites the                                        forgiveness of selves.       

            Nora and I took an evening a couple of weeks ago to watch a long-anticipated movie on Netflix.  No – it was not The Irishman.  It was the splendid movie, The Two Popes.

            The movie is a speculative, fictionalized account of the non-existent-then-close relationship between two men who would become Pope – the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world.

            The two men were Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who, early in the movie, is elected Pope Benedict XVI.  He had previously been head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, a noted conservative, and described by many as God’s Rottweiler.  He wanted no change in the church and, in fact, a return to earlier practices.

            The other prominent figure in the movie is Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aries, who has traveled to Rome to earnestly seek Pope Benedict’s blessing of his resignation. He is a progressive, wanting to make the church relevant in modern culture.

            They find themselves very much at cross-purposes – theologically, ecclesially, doctrinally, and in terms of plans for their individual futures.

            As Pope, Benedict rebuffs Bergoglio’s entreaties to accept his resignation. He goes even further: He shocks the South American archbishop with his own plans:  He will resign as pope – something which had not happened in more than 1,000 years.

            And he goes on: Benedict expects that Bergoglio will be elected the next Pope. The prophecy by Benedict leaves Bergoglio stunned.

            What ensues is a deeply profound and moving conversation between these two one-time rivals.  They both share their deep searching for the voice of the Lord, and acknowledge their dreadful shortcomings in the past.

            It was a scene which drew me to a personal insight – something which I had known intellectually long ago, but had chosen to forget in my service in the church.

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            That insight can best be described in this way:  I can look out at you and see a gathering of ordinary folks who have lived ordinary lives and have no personal failures or struggles to speak of.  It makes preaching easy.  It keeps our relationships antiseptic. It causes me to keep things on a surface level with you.  There is no need to talk about the struggles of living a human life.

            I know that we have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.  I know that we have faced struggles.  But, all that is theoretical, isn’t it?

            If I am lucky, you see me in such a one-dimensional, superficial sense, too.

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            But, such a simple, cardboard cut-out humanity is not the reason Jesus came into the world.  He came because we are broken. We have all failed – sometimes miserably.  We have made huge personal mistakes.  We have had motivations that were not in the same zip-code as admirable. We have had failed relationships. We have let others down. We have experienced bitter losses.

            Those are the reasons for Christmas.  As the prologue to the Gospel of John notes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 

            Both Benedict and the man who would become Francis acknowledged through the heart-rending conversation they shared that – even in spite of their failures (which you and I know in our own lives) – they had been touched by the grace of God.  That grace is scandalous because it wipes the slate clean for any person – including you and me… and the worst person we can think of.

            I want you to know that I see you differently.  I hope you see me differently, too.

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            The movie of those two Popes went further.  The two men talked about recognizing the grace of God, and forgiving themselves, as well. Bergoglio, particularly, could not forgive himself for actions early in his ministry. The grace of God is one thing; to forgive oneself is another.

            You probably know that line of thought.  I certainly do.

            But recognize this: If God has forgiven – literally forgotten – what is in your past, who are you to hold a higher standard?

            A key point of Jesus’ life is that we have all been made new creations. As new creations, we put on new garments, as described by the Prophet Isaiah in today’s first lesson:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God; 
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, 
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

            We are dressed differently.  We wear the garments of salvation, and the robe of righteousness.

            Christmas has come.  We have welcomed him into our hearts.  Now, as the New Year begins, wear the clothes with which you have been blessed as a new creation.  Let the old fade away – let go of it.  Release those burdens.  Celebrate the grace that has come into the world, and into your life.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Delaying Gratification

PROPERS:          ADVENT 3, YEAR A    
TEXT:                 JAMES 5:7-11

ONE SENTENCE:        The watchword for Advent is patience.         

            Each year, the season of Advent brings to mind a story from the days I was serving a parish in Starkville, Mississippi.

            I had been marinated, soaked in, and thoroughly indoctrinated in the Episcopal approach that Advent is a season of preparation and not an early Christmas celebration.  That was – and is – my approach.

            But, perhaps, I came on a little strong.

            One Sunday I preached a sermon that chastised the practice of premature Christmas celebrations.  I said that such early observances of the blessed event, coming on December 25th, diminished the power of the Incarnation and the dramatic message of his birth.  I suspect, also, that my condemnation included too-early Christmas trees, lights, decorations, and other typical Christmas trappings.

            The intent was correct, I think, but the conveyance of the message was too much.

            As I stood outside the nave greeting parishioners after the service, one of my favorite members came up to me to shake hands.  She looked up at me and said, “Well, bah humbug to you, too.”

            She made a good point.  She and I have laughed about it many times.

            But, while the message was too strong, the point was on-target.  As we might say, the emPHAsis was on the wrong sylLABle.

            There is another source I would cite that makes my point – and also the point of the lesson from James today.

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            M. Scott Peck was a psychiatrist who became a very popular author.  Among others, he wrote “The Road Less Traveled” and “People of the Lie”.

            He had been an agnostic, but while writing “The Road Less Traveled”, he became a Christian and a very popular speaker at conferences.

            That book was profoundly important to me.  It was formative in my decision to enter the ordained ministry. Along with reading his book, I served as a staff member of a conference he led at Kanuga, the Episcopal conference center in the mountains of North Carolina.

            In “The Road Less Traveled”, Dr. Peck adapted many of the concepts of modern psychiatric theory to the Christian message.  One of those is especially appropriate today.

            He wrote that one of the hallmarks of psychological health is the ability to delay gratification – to see something, want something, and patiently wait for it.  A classic example he shared was eating cake:  eating the cake first, while waiting until the end to eat the icing on the cake.  I thought it was a pretty clear illustration.

            It applies to Advent, too.  We are to await the joys and delights of Christmas on the actual day, and the 12 days in the season which follow.  That is somewhat at odds with the practice of many stores to put Christmas items on the shelves in September.

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            The concept of patience – of delaying gratification – is explicit in the lesson from James today.  And the promise which invites patience is subtly over, under, around, and through the other lessons.

            James – presumed by many scholars to be the brother of Our Lord – is very direct in his instructions (which may even predate the writings of Paul).  He tells us:

“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:7-10)

            James is speaking to us and advocating for a healthy spiritual practice.  He is also encouraging us – practically – to await the joy which will come in our welcoming of the newborn savior on Christmas morning.  And, beyond that, his advice reflects sound psychological health.  That is a trifecta.

            But what are we to do in the meantime?  James has some very practical suggestions as we wait.  Those suggestions do not include waging conflict with other forces – secular or religious.  They do not include the idea of rapping the knuckles of others who have different practices or traditions.  They are suggestions which highlight the practices of our faith.

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray.  Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  Are any of you sick? They should call the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:13-16a)

            Yes, those words were written 2,000 years ago and half a world away, in a culture far from ours today.  But the wisdom is timeless. In preparation for Jesus’ coming – either in Christmas celebration or in an ultimate sense – we are called to catch our breath.  To slow down.  To turn inward.  To reflect. To pray. To give thanks.  To ask for guidance.  And, to reach out to those in need:  the hungry, the hurting, the lonely, the poor, the searching, and those who hunger and thirst for a kind word.

            If you are able to delay gratification and observe this season of preparation in a deeply-spiritual way, you will truly know the joys of the Lord’s coming.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Shining with the Stars of Heaven

TEXT:                 ROMANS 8:14-19,34-35,37-39

ONE SENTENCE:        The suffering of the present moment is transitory and the                                      love of God transcends our finite life.

            Some 2,600 years before the birth of Jesus, the author of Isaiah 53 peered into the future and wrote these words:

2He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem…

7He was oppressed and afflicted,    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,    so he did not open his mouth.           (Isaiah 53:2-3;7)

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            Clearly, Isaiah never met Happy Deas.

            Happy was anything but a suffering servant, as described by Isaiah.  At this moment, I can hear the echoes of his boisterous laugh emanating deep from within his heart.  That is a blessing that will not soon depart.

            Our lives have been enriched by his countless stories, told with such relish, vigor, and animation.  After hearing his many stories, I must admit that my perspective has changed on a number of topics:

·      I will never dismiss electrical engineering students as calculating bookworms.  The creativity exhibited in pranks against fellow students is amazing.  I still laugh and retell some of those stories.

·      I will never see a vestry retreat in the same light as before. His commentary afterwards placed events in a whole new light.

·      The comradery of a close group of friends can transform life in ways that are unimaginable… and can provide a safe place to laugh and be one with a group.

·      Retirement is not some staid slice of life in which one puts up feet and vegetates. No, it was the time in which he gave birth to new ideas and initiatives, such as my favorite: Deas Woodworking Products, International.

·      The value of honesty:  One never doubted where Happy stood on an issue.  He would shuck the corn on any topic for which he had clarity and strong feelings.  There was no need to guess.

·      And, finally, the rootedness of faith.  Happy was born into the Episcopal Church, was nurtured at old St. Columb’s in Jackson, and continued his lifelong journey of faith wherever he and Babs went. He was a churchman to the core.

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            The last several years, though, were trying times for Happy – and, by extension, for Babs.  His health declined and he came face-to-face with his human limits.  That is something that each of us will face – either slowly or quickly.

            In such moments, when we look straight in the eye at our mortal nature, we can take comfort in the Apostle Paul’s words in his Letter to the Romans.  The words which were read today are perhaps the high point of the New Testament:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing
with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager
longing for the revealing of the children of God. Who is to condemn? It is
Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril,
or sword?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved
us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor
things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor
anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            There are two points I want you to hear in this passage from Paul’s hand.  Keep them in mind for yourself, and keep them in mind for our brother Happy.

            First, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Once we are claimed as his, there is no impediment large or small, tall or short, finite or infinite, that can keep us from his loving embrace.  I believe that to the core of my being.  It is an essential part of the Christian faith.

            My second point relates to Paul’s early words in this passage, and it bears noting for Happy’s last years and his transition to eternity.  Suffering, though significant and hard, is limited.  It does not last. They are a mere transient shadow to the eternity of God’s kingdom.  We will ultimately know this truth, as Happy already knows it. “Weeping comes for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

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            Happy lived his faith.  He was unabashed in how he lived it. Because of that, I want to mention one last biblical passage, after a brief suggestion.

            Babs, on one of these clear, crisp, cold nights – it doesn’t matter if it is Advent or Lent – step out into the darkness.  Be like the patriarch, Abraham, and look up into the night sky.  See the countless stars that shine in the firmament.  Remember these words from the Book of Daniel: 3 “Those who are wise[a] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)

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            And Babs, as you remember, there was that time years ago when you and Happy bought that very expensive bottle of wine at a church silent auction.  You invited several folks over to share that bottle, with each of us having a small glass.

            In the future, we can lift that cup of wine, and give thanks for the gift of Happy’s life, and for his eternal presence in our hearts and lives – as lasting as the stars in the heavens.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Message Then and Now

PROPERS:          ADVENT 1, YEAR A    
TEXT:                 PSALM 122; MATTHEW 24:36-44

ONE SENTENCE:        The key message of Advent, spanning continents,                                                 cultures, and millennia, is to be prepared.      

            There are few moments in my life which seem truly synchronous.  

            One was the first time I rode on a tour bus and entered the city of Jerusalem.  You have heard me describe it before, but the psalm today brings it back to me with renewed freshness.

            Our group had traveled uphill some 35 miles.  On the edge of the approaching urban area, we entered a tunnel, which went deep under the rising hilltop. You have heard me tell you of the countryside we passed through, heading from the Dead Sea rift to the hill country of Judea.

            As we entered the city from the east, our Israeli guide began to read the words… I was glad when they said to me… I recognized them immediately as the words of Psalm 122.

            He went on:

"Let us go to the house of the Lord."
2 Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;
4 To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord, *
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord.
5 For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
"May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.
8 For my brethren and companions' sake, *
I pray for your prosperity.
9 Because of the house of the Lord our God, *
I will seek to do you good."

            Somewhere, during the reading of the psalm, we emerged from the tunnel into the bright light of day, with a vision of the ancient, walled Holy City off to our left.

            The words were remarkable, and they seemed so appropriate.  Every one of us on the bus had waited years – even entire lives – to be in the Holy City.

            The psalmist’s words harken back to an era many thousands of years ago; Perhaps to the days of the united monarchy, the 88 years during which David and Solomon ruled over the Israel and Judea.

            The current truth is much starker. Jerusalem is a city at unity with itself?  Pray for the peace of Jerusalem? Not hardly.  It is a deeply divided city.  It is the most fought-over real estate in the world – and has been for 3,000 years.

            The western part of the city is Jewish.  Even within that area, there is separation between the Hasidic Jews and the more secular bulk of the Jewish population.

            The eastern portion of the city is Arab – and predominantly Muslim (The terms Arab and Muslim are not mutually inclusive).  The Arab section is like many African American areas of American cities – economically deprived and neglected by the ruling powers.

            Although there are a few churches, there is no Christian area of the city.

            There is a cacophony of faiths here.  You see the Hasidic Jews walking intently, dressed in their solid-black suits and dark, snap-brim fedoras, with peyos, long-tendrils of curly hair hanging down in front of their ears.  There is the piercing, regular sound of the Islamic call to prayer, emanating from the minarets which dot the city.

            And within the small Christian enclaves, you encounter the various traditions – Roman, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Cyprian, Syrian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Anglican. In those precincts, you encounter wafts of incense and tones of ancient chants.

            It is a true melting pot.

            But, likely, it is a modernized version of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.  It was then that the Romans ruled.  The despotic and crazed Herod reigned as a proxy with an iron fist.  Peoples of many countries journeyed there. Various religions held sway.  A melting pot then… a melting pot now.

            Even today, Jerusalem is a world – culturally and geographically – away from us.  That is today. Imagine the separation we would feel if we entered that world 2,000 years ago.

            Yet, strangely, the same message of that day is appropriate today.

            Hear words from the gospel today again:
Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

            Even though we have just entered Advent today, the lesson is from Jesus approaching the cross.  He is mindful that he will not be with his followers – in a physical sense – very long.  But he is imparting to them words of wisdom – an approach to life.

            Be prepared.  That is his essential point.  Live your life anticipating that God may enter it at some unknown, unexpected time.  That is what happened in that cultural melting pot 2,000 years ago – amidst the drama, the intrigue, the brokenness, the grief, the conflict, and all the other aspects of brutality, oppression, life and death

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            God’s movement may be slow or quick; dramatic or subtle.  But one thing is for certain, it will come, if you are open to it.  You will see it when you look in the rearview mirror.

            Advent is a season for preparation, and for anticipation.  Do not be distracted by all the glittering objects and conflicting experiences of today. Nothing we know is more complex and contradictory than what was present in Jerusalem two millennia ago. Nothing is new under the sun.

            But, the message remains the same:  Be prepared.  God will come, at a time when you least expect it, but, perhaps, most need it.  And, ultimately, you will know it.