A Habit of Newness

images

The prophet Isaiah says to the people of Israel exiled in Babylon,

“Thus says the Lord…Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing….”

I wonder how the people of Israel uprooted from their homes and homeland, taken captive, and carried off to a foreign land where people worshiped different gods heard those words.

I wonder if they even heard those words at all living as they did in the land of their conquerors. How could they not remember their homeland left in ruins, their loved ones lying dead, their temple destroyed. I imagine that the distant past—the past before the siege and fall of Jerusalem—was one place where they could find peace. I suspect they often found themselves considering the things of old—the good old days.

You and I—we are kin with the people of the exile, the people to whom Isaiah spoke the words of God.

Who among us has not found themselves in exile—cut off from that which we know, that which we love, that which gives us comfort?

Who among us has not found themselves stumbling in a wilderness of the unfamiliar and therefore threatening?

Who among us has not stood in the place of the people of the exile, the Israelites hauled off to Babylon?

Who among us has not, at one time or another in their life, shared their despair and turned back to the glory days of home for comfort and for peace?

I imagine that each of us in this room can look back and remember a time in our lives when we did not believe that God would ever create something new—a time when we saw no way out of the darkness of our days. Maybe a long stretch of unemployment or a hurtful divorce or the loss of a loved one or the aftermath a feared diagnosis delivered.

I suspect that most of us gathered around the altar this evening have a fair acquaintance with that crippling darkness.—either in our own life or in the lives of communities in which we have lived.

I know that here at St. Michael’s there have been more than a few such moments in our shared life—a fire that destroyed the old sacristy and what was then the parish hall; the day we learned that the then Bishop had denied our loan even as this very building was going up. Closer to our shared home—the moment we as a worshipping community learned that Father Daniel—the founder of Live at Five—was leaving St. Michael’s. I can still remember over-hearing a person leaving worship that night saying, “I don’t know what I’ll do.”   I won’t soon forget the feeling of that blanket of despair that draped itself on this community.

And yet….

And yet we know from our own lives, the lives of those we love and the lives of communities in which we have lived, that there is always something new at work far beneath the topsoil of our lives.

Today, on this fifth and last Sunday of Lent,

Today, still reeling from the ugliness and meanness and only lightly-veiled tilt                towards violence that seem to be a part of our current round of elections,

Today, perhaps remembering the sadness that marks the life of someone we love,

we hear the prophet known as Isaiah say to the people of Israel, the people of the exile, the people who sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept, people who despaired of ever regaining their bearings–“Behold, I am doing a new thing, Even now it is springing to light. Do you not perceive it?”

We hear the psalmist sing the promises of God:

Those who sowed with tears/will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed/

will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

We hear those words and we wonder, “Can they be true? Dare we hope?”

That’s the thing about God’s newness at work in a human life—often you don’t see it until you look in your rearview mirror.

And yet the newness is there, “being born in us, just when we least believe in it.”1

When I look in my own rearview mirror, I sometimes catch a glimpse of moments of newness of life just when I thought things had fallen apart for good—disasters that seemed to lead to light and new life. I suspect such moments are a part of every life.

I know that St. Michael’s has had such moments— the way the community came together in the aftermath of that fire, the amazing vitality springing up from the necessity of bringing in the money to pay for this house of worship,   and surely not least, the way this community of Live at Five has lived into its ministry of bringing St. Michael’s out into the larger community and bringing the larger community into the worshipping core of St. Michael’s. Who would have thunk it in the dark moments of our life together.

But God has a habit of doing a new thing. The Bible is full of God’s startling acts of newness—it’s bookended by acts of newness—starting with creation and ending with the new Jerusalem. Why would we not expect to find God’s acts of newness in our own lives, in our common life, and in the world in which we live. God is about a new thing.

Like the green blade of grass rising from the wintry soil, God is always at work Eastering our ashen world and our ashen lives . The light of the open tomb overcoming the darkness of the cross.

“Behold,” God says to God’s people, “I am doing a new thing, even now it is springing to light.”

It’s our job to greet that Eastering newness with hopeful hearts and arms wide open to receive God’s next new thing.

1 “Behold, I am Doing a New Thing,” Paul Tillich, from The Shaking of the Foundations, 1955.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors–Or So They Say

A Reflection on Galatians 5: 1-6

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

 

“Good fences make good neighbors,”

or so the saying goes.

Lines we humans draw to separate us from them

and theirs from ours

 

Lines of color

class

and kin

 

“Good fences make good neighbors”

So we keep drawing lines:

lines marking borders between those we like

and those we’d rather just avoid

 

Some as new as yesterday

and

Some going back two thousand years or more

Jew or Greek

slave or free

male or female

circumcised or not

 

Lines demarking who is in

and who is out

whom to trust and

whom to fear

 

Because, we are assured,

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

 

First we draw the lines

and then

we throw up walls—

that keep us safe and keep them in their place.

 

But “something there is that does not like a wall”

Forces of nature conspire

to remove the divides we humans like to build and keep

 

Posts decay, boards rot, stones crumble

the ground remains

unencumbered

and undivided

 

There underneath the detritus of collapsing walls and decaying fences:

The ground in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Question of Citizenship

Foxes and hens and enemies of the cross. A question of citizenship—citizenship claimed; citizenship renounced. Sometimes scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on the looming questions of the day. Such is the case today.

Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who would call it to accounts, defies the powers and principalities of his day and refuses to bow to the lords of fear.

Paul, in a letter to the church in Philippi, reminds those followers of Christ that they are citizens of heaven not subjects of Caesar.  Perhaps raising in their minds the questions that have floated around in my mind this week as I sat with scripture and this weird world in which you and I find ourselves.

Another week of primaries and caucuses and debates and town halls and editorials and sound bites and terrifying tweets as the volume goes up day after day–in almost a direct correspondence to the vituperativeness register.

The apostle Paul pointing out from the sidelines, “Their end is destruction; their god is in their belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” as the political class—candidates, managers and fans—hurl barbs at one another and at those who would question their behavior.

You and I, we hear all this at a distance. We aren’t bombarded by robocalls and TV ads.   At least not yet. Imagine what it is like to live in an early primary state! Nonetheless the noise is deafening.

There have been times in the last several months when I’ve wanted to step into that Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream”, clasp my hands on my ears and just let out a loud scream or maybe just go back to bed, pull up the covers, and put a pillow over my head..

But the apostle Paul reminds us that screaming is not the way of Christ. Duck and cover is not a faithful Christian response. We are citizens of another realm—citizens of heaven. We follow different laws; we speak a different language; we trade in a different currency; we worship a different God.

The prophet Micah once urged those within earshot to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Laws of living both for the people of Israel and for us, their descendents. When asked about the law and the commandments, Jesus of Nazareth replied, “The greatest commandment is this: love God. The second is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.”   Those are the laws of our land—justice, mercy and love of God and neighbor.

In this season of bullying and bombast we are called to speak in a different language—the language of love, for that is our native tongue. Remember what Paul had to say about that language—“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth….”

Ours is the currency of kindness and connection. Citizens of heaven don’t trade in the currency of put downs or insults or stinging barbs. Ours is not a currency backed by hatred or isolation. We don’t build walls; we build bridges!

Ours is not the God of consumption or fear or power over others. Ours is the God of love. We don’t trade in fear. We have no truck with it. Remember “Perfect love casts out fear.”

And yet you and I live in the United States—a country that includes an amendment to its Constitution that provides that “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”   We as citizens of heaven and as citizens of the United States again and again grapple with just what is the role of our faith in our life—our public life and our private life.

Isn’t that the challenge citizens of heaven face wherever they live?

Isn’t that the challenge that surfaced this week in the controversy surrounding Pope Francis’ comment that “a person who thinks only about building walls, whatever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Then again I wonder if all this brouhaha, this dust up over Pope Francis’ comments, isn’t really a false dilemma. You and I and Pope Francis, too, are citizens of heaven. That’s our primary identity. It’s as citizens of heaven that we live and move and have our being. Our Christian vocation includes hearing and seeing and speaking and voting as citizens of heaven. It is our business to live according to those mandates. It is our business to articulate boldly and clearly the laws we follow as citizens of heaven.   As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

As citizens of heaven, we are called to speak out for justice, to speak out for mercy. To speak out in love. To speak out with God.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Wilderness Sunday

Today is Wilderness Sunday. Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear accounts of Jesus being driven to or, as is the case this Sunday, led into the wilderness. There are those who see the Wilderness as a place of trial and temptation; there are those who see it as a place where folks can drill down to the essentials of life; there are those who see the Wilderness as a place to be avoided at all costs. It’s just too darned dangerous.

But Wilderness times and places really can’t be avoided. Wilderness comes to each of us and to all of us collectively. Wilderness of disease and despair. Wilderness of a job lost, a friendship ruptured, a relationship gone off the tracks. Wilderness of fear, of loneliness, of addiction. Wilderness of failure, confusion, guilt. The many shapes wilderness takes in the lives of individuals. But wilderness comes to communities too—the wilderness of broken promises, failed leadership; the wilderness of lost values, skewed priorities, limited imagination; the wilderness of war and threats of war; a wilderness turned ashen through indifference to our shared humanity.

Wilderness times—we can’t avoid them, so we best learn how to live in them.

Everything—well maybe not everything—but a lot of what I needed to know about living in Wilderness times, I learned at Camp Widgiwagen—a canoe camp based in the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota.

A wilderness of rough trails, muskeg and sinkholes, hordes of swarming mosquitoes and lakes and rivers that, though providing cooling relief on hot and humid afternoons , also housed blood sucking leaches and treacherous rapids; a wilderness of head winds and long portages and frightening night sounds, but also a wilderness of gentle beauty and tranquil streams meandering through grassy swamp lands. A wilderness I encountered in community—a community of seven adolescent girls and their seasoned guides.

In that wilderness I learned some valuable lessons—

*Come prepared as best you can

*Pack only what you really need (you have to carry what you pack)

*Get the best maps you can and learn how to read them

*Trust your guides(they’ve been that way before)

*Watch for the handholds and use them

 

You and I, we don’t need to go to the wilderness. It has come to us and likely will again. It behooves us to learn the lessons of the wilderness. To draw on the wisdom of our forebearers—the wisdom of Moses, the wisdom of the psalmist, the wisdom of Jesus. They offer us handholds we can grab as we make our way through the wildernesses we encounter here and now.   Handholds that help us remember God’s role in our shared past Handholds of story, scripture and promises made and promises kept.

 

 

 

Moses reminding God’s people of their shared story—a story of a wandering Aramean who set out into a wilderness and became the father of a people, a story of God providing for them as they themselves wandered in the wilderness.

 

The psalmist reassuring the people of the exile cut off from all that was familiar, carried away in a maelstrom of violence. A people who saw everything they loved destroyed—families, homes, their temple. A people who wondered if God had abandoned them.   The psalmist reminding them of God’s promises to be with them and to hear their cries.

 

Jesus, sustained by the Holy Spirit and turning to scripture as he struggles against the powers that threaten to destroy him.

 

You and I we live in wilderness times. Seemingly intractable conflicts span the globe. Our earth is burning up. Divides of rich and poor, safe and vulnerable widen.

Daily, those who would be our leaders deny both our shared humanity and our shared divinity. Fear stalks the land. And yet….

 

This season of lent offers us the opportunity to live the lessons of the wilderness:

*to come prepared with open hearts

*to pack only what we really need for the journey

*to get and read the best maps available—the maps we encounter in sacred story

*to listen to and trust the wisdom of those who have walked this way before

*to grab tight the handholds of shared story and sacred scripture

*to trust in the promises of God

*to remember that our story ends not at the Cross but with the Resurrection.

 

It is as Christians that we encounter the wildernesses in our lives. We follow Jesus of Nazareth. We share his handholds—a deep and abiding sense of the presence of God, the lessons of sacred scripture—songs of the psalmist inscribed on his heart (and ours), the wisdom of the prophets echoing in his ears and ours , the lessons of our progenitors in faith imprinted on his memory and ours.   Jesus is our primary guide in the wilderness. But there are others—those who have walked the ways of the wilderness before and those who walk with us now—theologians and saints, poets and prophets, the neighbor across the street and the person sitting next to us in the pew.   Each carrying with them stories of wandering in the wilderness, of carrying their cross, of emerging into the light.

 

This season of Lent offers us the opportunity to remember our own wilderness stories, to draw on them as we face our days, and to hear the stories others have to tell.

 

Each and every session at Camp Widgiwagen ends with a big bonfire built in the center of a circle. Campers sit or stand around the fire and tell their stories of encounters in the wilderness. There’s lots of shared laughter and lots of shared tears. Somehow each story told around that fire echoes and enlarges the other stories shared and heard. In the telling and the hearing of stories both young campers and seasoned guides grow closer to one another and to the One who is with us always—even to the End of the Age.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Christmas Returns Again This Year

“Christmas returns as it always does,” the poet proclaims.

Christmas returns to near-barren fields

in the dark night watches

to shepherds on guard

and wombs long thought empty

 

“Christmas returns….”

in surprising places

with twists in the plot

that confront and give hope

light in the darkness of lives gone unnoticed

 

A young single mother struggling to raise

two girls on her own

while wrapped in a cloud of trauma-filled gloom

she’s got no money for gifts this year

just barely enough to pay off the rent

 

And yet she picks out a couple of books

in hopes that somehow she’ll find cash to pay

for the books that she’s layed away

 

Two days before Christmas she goes to pay for the books

Both those layed away and two newly selected

She stands in line and waits her turn

 

“I have some books on hold,” she says

to the clerk at the counter.

The clerk turns away,

bends down and picks up a bag.

 

“How much do I owe?” the young mother asks.

The clerk then replies,

“Just the cost of those books you hold in your hands.”

 

“What?” “How can that be?” “I didn’t pay in advance.”

“They’re paid for,” the clerk keeps repeating.

“They’re yours. They’re all paid for.”

 

Again and again on the short ride home

that young mother looks down

on that bag full of books.

Incredulous, puzzled, confused by it all

“How? I don’t get it. How can this be?”

Stunned like those shepherds on that far-away field.

 

As she picks up her bag and heads to the gate

she turns back and says in a confident way

“A gift of grace, that’s what it is.”

 

“Christmas returns again this year.”

A woman of indeterminate age

weathered and wrinkled by time on the streets

announces with considerable pride

“Two sleeping bags.

“I’ve got two sleeping bags and loads of dry socks.”

 

Alarm bells set off. She’s out on the streets.

“Where do you stay when it gets really cold?”

“Not in the shelter, that’s for sure.

“Folks steal all your things and make lots of noise.”

“But where do you stay,” the question resurfaces.

 

Pulling her jackets close to her face, she replies,

“I camp out in a really good place.

“A church let’s me stay in their outdoor loft.

“I’m sheltered from snow and the wind and the rain.

“I’m safe and welcome and that’s what I need.”

 

Christmas returns again this year

With twists in a plot that both gives hope and confronts:

The spark of life in a woman

weathered and wrinkled by time on the streets

a beacon of hope from one gone unnoticed.

 

And yet one still wonders,

“Are you really safe? Is that all you need?”

“Is an outdoor loft sufficient for God’s precious child?”

 

Still Christmas returns again and again:

In a hospital room on Christmas Day

A curtain divides one bed from the next

Behind that curtain a tremulous voice

Joins others in prayer.

 

A chorus of voices—some trembling, some belting, some gasping for breath:

“Our Father who art in Heaven

“Hallowed be thy name

“Thy Kingdom come

“Thy will be done

“On earth as it is in Heaven….”

 

A strong voice rises from the hall,

“O holy child of Bethlehem

Descend to us we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today”

As Christmas returns year in and year out.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Stories

“In the name of God who brings light to the darkness.”

Today we hear two stories. One we know well.. A story set in the distant reaches of the Roman Empire. A story set in a time of oppression—both civil and religious. A story set in a time when violence stalked the land.

The other story we hear today is one most of us don’t know as well. It’s not part of our ordinary repertoire.  It doesn’t even appear in the Revised Common Lectionary.   It, too, is a story set against a backdrop of violence. A story of conquest and obliteration.   A story etched in hues of humiliation and disruption, illness, enslavement and death.

You and I, we hear these stories against the backdrop of our own stories set in a world not so different from the worlds that have preceded ours. We hear these stories amidst a clattering cacophony of voices playing to our fears of the darkness in our own world, in our own lives.

We can all—everyone of us gathered here today—see and catalogue the darkness that enshrouds us, the darkness that can overwhelm us. We scan our Facebook page, turn on the radio, watch the news, catch a glimpse of the newsfeeds that pop up on our smart phones and we see the arrogance, the meanness, the fear and the terror that seem to mark our days. We see the Herods of our day (both ours and theirs), the thugs and the bullies, bosses that intimidate, the powerful who abuse their power. We note the spate of gun violence and mass murders, the vituperativeness in social discourse, the rise of bad boys and bad girls on our national stage. In sadness we record our fear, our apprehension, our worry about what the future holds for our children.

And yet…

In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of all our fear and anxiety and weariness, we hear the voice of Mary singing, “My sprit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day on all generations will call me blessed: the almighty has done great things for me and Holy is his name.

In the midst of all the hype and xenophobia that mark our public discourse, we hear La Virgen de Guadalupe say, “Here I will hear their weeping and their sorrows and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.”

In this world of noise and bombast, terror and fear and the killing of the innocent, we witness Juan Diego called by Guadalupe to pick roses sprung up on a wintry hillside. We see him walk tentatively into the halls of power, unfurl his cloak, and spread those roses at the Bishop’s feet. And as he does, we hear the ground beneath the Bishop’s feet shift.

In the midst of all the meanness and bombasity, the chorus of “no’s” and “anti’s”, the clanging and clattering and clamoring of bellicose voices that poison our airwaves, we hear those stories and we remember that “seemingly ordinary lives can be imbued with the extraordinary spirit of God to transform the world.”1

So often folks look at all the bleakness, at the enormity of it all and wonder, “Will this ever change?” or maybe “What’s a person to do?” or even “Where is God?”

And we forget.

We forget that young woman from a backwater village in the distant reaches of the Roman Empire. We forget that peasant farmer sent off with a cloak full of roses. We forget that “ordinary lives can be imbued with the extraordinary spirit of God to transform the world.”

But it’s not always about extraordinary game-changing acts that change the course of history writ large. God is at work in ordinary moments in the ordinary lives of ordinary people like you and me.

Not long ago a friend told me about a story his mother often tells. A story of a time when she was hovering between life and death. A story set in the early days of World War Two. She had contracted a virulent case of tuberculosis. Eighteen months into her three-year stay in the TB ward, she was at her lowest point. Despairing of seeing another spring, she said to the nurse caring for her, “I wonder if there is green grass hidden under all that snow.” The nurse replied, “Hmm….” and went on about her work.

Thirty minutes later the nurse was back. Her cheeks red from the cold. Her hands dripping with melting snow. “You asked about the grass,” she said as she opened her hands. There in those cold wet hands was a clump of green grass. To this day, my friend’s mother claims that that clump of green grass made all the difference in the world. To this day, my friend’s mother attributes her recovery to the hope she found in that grass. The spirit of God transforming the world through the hands of a nurse willing to root through the snow in search of a clump of green grass. An ordinary moment in the ordinary life of an ordinary person.

And yet we are schooled to look at and for the extraordinary.   Sometimes I wonder if in our focus on the extraordinary, our focus on Christ coming again in glory, in our focus on the reign of God that is to come, we miss the possibility of the kingdom of God right here in our midst.  And then again sometimes I wonder if in holding tight to God in the here and now—God in the already—we miss out on the promise that one day wolves really will lie down with lambs and swords really will be turned to plough shares and justice really will roll down like water and righteousness like an every-flowing stream and peace really will prevail on earth.

May this then be our prayer from the heart of the darkness in our world and the darkness of our days:

Christ Jesus, come in glory. Christ Jesus, be born in us today.  Christ Jesus, bring light to our darkness.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

All in a Day’s Work

2015-12-12 16.44.02.jpg

2015-12-12 17.21.25.jpg

2015-12-12 20.23.59

A sermon in progress.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment