Monday, November 22, 2010

Living Gratefully in an Age of Ungratefulness

Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Killeen, TX, the     Rev. Paul Moore

Mark Mitchell in a new book called "Ingratitude and the Death of Freedom" insightfully notes: "We can choose to be friendly regardless of how others treat us. We can choose to act justly even if we have been wronged. But gratitude is different. It's a response to goodness." The Christian recognizes that all goodness begins with God, so that John Calvin can write that gratitude goes to the heart of the Christian response to God. In theological terms we call it contingency. Our being is contingent on something else. Our society, our nation, our church, even creation itself is contingent on something, and that something is the ongoing, continuous providential involvement of the divine will in the existence of things. In other words, the fact that you are, that you are what you are, and have what you have, is an active action of God, right now, on your behalf, and the writer of Genesis puts in the mouth of God those timeless words about God's creative work, "And behold, it was very good."

Contingency sits uneasily on the contemporary soul. Mostly, we are too busy to think that deeply. In the 1930's two brothers by the last name of McDonald invented something new in the food industry. They took the common hamburger and mechanized its production. They hired cheap labor and trained each person to perform one function, produced exactly the same burger in the same process, and sold it at rock-bottom prices. In doing so they invented fast food, and launched an epoch. Food became no longer an occasion for social interaction, it dropped its symbolic value as a reminder of providential provision. It became a cog in the wheel of keeping the machine called our bodies greased and fueled.

They would not have been successful if we had not already begun to think of our bodies as merely machines. The industrial revolution had already bequeathed us a demythologized existence. The fact that we are was severed from the why, allowing us to see our bodies as sources of activities that we can sell to make a living. And so now we do not ask where our food comes from, or how it was produced, we are just happy to buy it at low prices, unconcerned with the international consequences of the government subsidies involved, or the illegal workforce and its characteristic abuses, or the lack of concern for the environment and eventually, our very health. We do not consider that of the 12.1 billion bushels of corn produced by the U.S. in 2008, according to the USDA:

  • 5.25 billion bu. - Livestock feed
  • 3.65 billion bu. - Ethanol production
  • 1.85 billion bu. – Exports
  • 943 million bu. - Production of Starch, Corn Oil, Sweeteners (HFCS, etc.)
  • 327 million bu. - Human consumption - grits, corn flower, corn meal, beverage alcohol

We ate 3% of the corn crop. We used more corn to feed livestock than anything else (43%), of which the lions' share went to cows in feedlots. Feedlots produce 17% of the greenhouse gasses produced by humans in the world. Cows were not designed to eat corn, creating huge health issues for feedlot operators that are not always resolved by the time the beef gets to the supermarkets. If we are merely machines we can market none of this matters. But if we are something else, something more, if we are called to live in relationship with our Creator, with one another and with the rest of creation, it may very well matter a great deal.

More profoundly, if we can think of ourselves as a commodity, then our egos become the agents who buy, sell and manage that commodity. An agent works for the bottom line of the commodity involved. The idea that there might be a higher authority to which to respond is an inconvenient bother. It's much more useful to think of ourselves as captains of our own souls.

Our faith tells us that we are more than just machines we can market at will. We are contingent: We are creations, bearing the image of the Creator and for that reason alone, holy, called into holy relationships with the Creator, with one another, and with the rest of creation, and commissioned with a divine mandate in the world—holy work for a holy people.

The importance of this day called "Thanksgiving" for the Christian then, lies as much in our self-definition as in our feasts. We are the people who recognize our contingency, who make time out to think deeply. At the heart of our worship is a meal for which the "why" and the "how" are of the essence. The Eucharist for the Christian is the primordial meal, the one that is meant to orient us to every meal. It is not merely to fuel and oil a spiritual machine as it cranks through this life into the next. It is a recognition of the source of our eternal hope, in the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The bread that we eat represents not just Christ, but ourselves as His body and His constant provision of all we need, materially, socially and spiritually. The wine that we partake is not merely the memory of a cruel death, but the Spirit that we all share, the Spirit that forgives us as we forgive our debtors in the same spirit. The very word "Eucharist" means "Thanksgiving." We are a people whose central act of worship is an act of transforming gratitude.

And so it is right this day to give thanks to God for the goodness of creation—our creation as much as the turkeys on our tables, to take time to look at where our food comes from and how we eat it—ultimately as well as immediately, and to determine how to live profoundly gratefully in the earth.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What it Means to be a Christian

Pentecost 26, Proper 29, November 21, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

What it Means to be a Christian at St. Christopher's

It is often asked of you, and it makes sense that I answer the question for me as well. What does being a good steward do for me? It might be easy to say it pays my salary, but I'm a Christian before I am a priest. Being a priest is the best way I can be a Christian, and being a priest at St. Christopher's is what God has me doing right now. My priesthood, then, is part and parcel with my stewardship.

Stewardship does three things for me:

First, it gives me a sense of purpose in life. This morning we baptize two adults and two children. Baptism officially marks a person's walk with Christ in the context of the church. It's not that God has not already been active in these peoples' lives, of course that is true, but this marks the moment when the relationship between the person and God as we Christians know Him in Jesus Christ takes official form. It is a covenant, an agreement between God and a person. In every covenant God promises to do something, and so does the person. What a person does because he or she is baptized is called stewardship. I am a steward because I am a baptized person.

Therefore, my service in the church is a function of my baptism: I work because I belong. What I actually do is a function of who I am as a person. I have a particular history and a particular sense of myself. These particularities fit into the great scheme of the world, and the best fit between myself and the world is priesthood, a bridge-builder between God and people, between people and people, and between people and the rest of creation. Exercising my gifts in the context of the Church gives life to my baptismal covenant and purpose to my living.

Second, it challenges me to grow: My greatest challenge as a priest is to be an example. My first example to you is the sincerity of my confession. Confession is at the heart of baptism. Ongoing Christian confession is an extension of our baptism. It is only as I confess with an honest and sincere heart that I can call you all to honest and sincere confession. My second example is in my humanity. In Jesus we see what humanity is supposed to be like. The closer we get to Christ the more human we become. The less human we are the further we are from God. It is a Christian thing, then to strive toward a healthy, balanced human life. The healthier my body, soul and spirit are, the better my example of Christian living.

Finally, it calls me to share what I have. I have studied what many of you have not. I continue to do so, as you probably know, as I pursue a Master's Degree in Spiritual Formation at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. I seek to integrate what I have come to know over the years and what I am learning now into what I teach you all. You need to get it, and I seem to have brainer.

A good friend of mine, and one-time preacher at our Guadalupe Event one year is the Rt. Rev. Bob Hibbs. He has on his office wall a big frame that contains all his religious certifications. At the very bottom is his baptismal certificate, small and unassuming. Above that is his confirmation certificate, a little more elaborate. Above this are his ordination certificates, to the deaconate, then to the priesthood, and finally to the order of Bishops, the largest and most ostentatious of them all. But he explains it like this: Baptism, though the certificate may be unassuming in appearance, is really the foundation for the rest. All of what he does in the church constitutes an effort to live into the fullness of his baptismal covenant.

Who, here, is baptized? YOU are a minister of the Gospel here, YOU have gifts to give and work to do. YOU matter, you're important to the work of the Kingdom, right here, right now, at St. Christopher's, Killeen. The Holy Spirit is counting you YOU!

Well finally!

This morning on Good Morning America George Stephanopoulos interviewed Mr. Bowles, co-chair of the President's Deficit Commission talked about the solution to the escalating deficit that they will be laying before Congress soon. He mentioned something very interesting—and refreshing to hear in government circles. He talked about listening.

He didn't talk about just noting what someone said. He talked about spending months listening to members of Congress, to build trust and uncover a bipartisan consensus on what can be done.

Finally, Congress is leading the way rather than reacting to the public's anxious reactions. Quick fixes almost never work, but hard, long-term decisions are almost always hard to sell to people who want quick fixes. We're a nation of quick-fixers. We're in a bind! But these leaders took time to listen, to build consensus, and to try to figure a way through.

Now I'm no economist and I don't really know whether their idea will fly or not, but if we would all do as they did and take some time to listen to one another for a lot longer than we normally think is necessary, this whole nation would settle down, relax and let some real leadership emerge. With that kind of leadership we can figure out a way to live decisively and confidently into the challenges of the second decade of this century and beyond.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PETA…irony is still alive and well!

One-time Playboy Playmate of the Year and enduring icon of men's fascination with women's bodies is in Israel lobbying the Israeli government to ban the use of animal skins in human garments. The ones for whom the consequences are perhaps most compelling are the ultra-orthodox Jewish men who could no longer wear their fur hats. Mrs. Anderson has also been recently named an honorary director of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

I find it highly ironic that a person who has made millions of dollars off her own skin would be opposed to the use of other animal's skins. Furthermore, it should not surprise us that PETA asked her to be an honorary director. PETA has been charged with criminal trespassing in efforts to rescue experimental animals from labs. They have destroyed personal property by throwing paint on fur coats. They have hazed patrons of zoos and animal shelters that are not "no-kill." Their rap sheet of violence against the general public that does not believe as they do is long indeed. For an organization that claims to work against cruelty to animals it seems we unbelievers fall too low on the evolutionary ladder to qualify.

PETA should find another word for their name that starts with "E." The one they use doesn't fit.

For All the Saints

All Saints' Sunday, November 7, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

Communion of Saints

Never in the history of humanity have we believed seriously that death was the end of significance. A year and two days ago 13 people died and 30 were wounded on Fort Hood. They were victims of an angry man who thought God had sanctioned the killing 1of those who did not follow his religious path. His trial is a high profile case coming up later this month. This week has been a week of remembering the fallen and the heroes of that day. The effect has been one of binding us all together again as a community, one in which we share pain and glory and a common purpose—liberty, and in this case, freedom of religion. Across the span of the last 12 months St. Christopher's has lost 6 of its cherished members. They were not taken prematurely by twisted theology, but passed on into the larger life after a lifetime of love and living. Nonetheless, their loss binds us together in a community of pain and glory, and their memory gives us a common purpose. In fact, in view of these two sets of memories, death is only superficially about loss. The last word in death is not grief, it is community.

The Church has taught ever since the resurrection of Christ that death is the gateway to greater life. Rightly do we draw hope and peace in our loss, so that as Paul says in I Thessalonians that we do not grieve as those who have no hope, but that just as our eternal life begins at the moment of baptism, so the eternal life of those who enjoy it fully is not separated from the shadow that we now live. And so the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that they sit in the grandstands watching us finish our race, cheering us on. Orthodox churches around the world place an iconostasis behind the altar to remind us that they share in our worship of God every Sunday.

For this reason our Hispanic brothers and sisters celebrate this day with special acts of devotion. In the Parish Hall you will find an "ofrenda," an altar to loved ones who have passed on. It is replete with symbols: A cross of dirt reminds us of our own mortality. Photos of deceased loved ones, and food items they enjoyed bring their memory vividly to life, and sugar skulls remind us that death is bitter-sweet, mixing the pangs of a loved one gone with the assurance that the separation is neither complete nor final. Central to that figure is CatrĂ­n and Catrina, man and woman skeletons, dressed often in party or even wedding dress, dancing, kissing, partying, always enjoying themselves, the dead defiantly sharing life with the living, powerful cultural symbols of Christ's victory over death and our hope in His resurrection.

Ours is a community of those whose lives testify to the transforming work of the Cross of Christ. Consequently, it has a particular cut and slant, a characteristic that stands it apart from all other communities. The biblical images used to describe that difference are many: temple, body, family, priesthood, nation, wife. I would like to take up one that is perhaps particularly meaningful to a community like ours: We are an army.

As with all armies, we have a hierarchy. We have a Commander, Christ, We have officers (bishops) and sergeants (priests and deacons) and troops (laity) but the hierarchy works differently from that of Fort Hood, one could perhaps more accurately call it a lowerarchy. As Christ taught His disciples the night before He suffered when He washed their feet, the greatest one is the one who most serves.

We have a mission, but our mission is different from that of Fort Hood. It is at once more daring and impossible, yet simple and easy: Take back creation for the Creator, redeem the world from sin. The mission has an eternal dimension to it, but you cannot separate the eternal from the temporal, for we are to bring the temporal into alignment with the eternal. We cannot accomplish this mission on our own, we require the help of every member, and the power of the Holy Spirit; we are not an Army of One.

We have weapons, but our weapons are not like the weapons of Fort Hood. Our weapons are not earthly (II Cor. 10,) but heavenly, and all the more powerful for it. In Ephesians 6 the author describes the armor of God, which are the various practices and articles of our faith. Our weaponry is different not so much in nature as in character. The Cross is the power behind all of our weaponry. As Christ gave Himself on the cross for our redemption, so we give ourselves for the redemption of the world. The conquering force behind our weaponry is not greater strength, but deeper love, the very love of God.

There is much in our world which does not conform to the love of God. There are many ways in which we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. There are inequities related to race, there are injustices perpetrated on foreigners, people of color, people who do not follow our religious path, and people who act differently than we. Much of these injustices are institutionalized in our law...there is a difference between legal and ethical. There is much in our church that does not reflect our love for all God's children. Hierarchy wielded as such rather than lowerarchy, programs that exclude, prejudices that preclude, and those seven deadly words, "We've always done it that way before." There is much in our individual lives that betrays our integrity. We do not love as we are loved. We do not give as we have received. We do not live the world that God designed.

Think of someone in your own life who has passed on whose faith you respect. Now, as they stand in the full presence of God, think how they would conceive of our community, and pledge yourself to live into that reality now.

Father of all, we pray to you for all those whom we love but no longer see. Grant them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.


Pentecost 25, Proper 28, November 14, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church    , Rev. Paul Moore

Spiritual Veterans

What is a veteran? A veteran is one who has fought in a war for our country. A veteran is one who is experienced in the struggles of life. Like anyone who has looked death in the face, a veteran has the unique opportunity in life to see life clearly for what it is, to make clear choices as to values and priorities, and to live life unencumbered by unnecessary concerns. Described like that, Jesus is a veteran, you could almost call Him a veteran of a civil war. Jesus has weathered the war, stared death in the face, and has clear priorities and values.

You see that simple straightforward life in today's Gospel lesson. He is standing in Herod's Temple while people described the beauty of it. Recently in our Tuesday morning Bible Study we learned about some of the stones to which they referred. They are estimated to weigh more than 570 metric tons. How Herod got them where they are is truly baffling and amazing. But Jesus is unmoved. Even these large stones will be thrown down, says Jesus. The world itself will be shaken to its foundations.

Jesus' disciples are rather moved instead...When will these things be? How will we know when they are about to happen? Jesus' answer is long, so I summarize: Beware, Be ready, Be confident. We will take each one in turn.

Beware: A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the newspaper about the C12, the Committee of 12 prominent businessmen around town who seek in their own way to influence the political actions taken. The article calls them a "secret society." I'm not really sure how "secret" they are, but the circles of power in any town are usually entered only by invitation, and proffered to those whose control of resources and opportunities make them assets to the group. Jesus would never have been invited to be part of the C12. He had a lot to say about politics, but He was never in the circles of power, in fact, the circles of power tended to keep him at arm's length. He preached different priorities. The edifices of human culture are ultimately of little concern, says Jesus in today's Gospel. Economic opportunities come and go, and today's golden dream is tomorrow's ruined millionaire. Systems will fight against systems, and plans against programs. But all of that is penultimate in view of eternity.

Jesus rightly taught us to hold the values of this world lightly in our hands; to not get overly concerned with them, for in the end they are passing away.

Be ready: If you stand your political aspirations and the economics behind them beneath the shadow of the Cross there will be consequences. The world does not march to the beat of this drum, they will oppose you for it. Company managers and CEO's will challenge your allegiance. Community leaders will assume all sorts of false things about you. The difference between your stance as a Christian and the values of the world will only get more clearly defined over time, not less so.

But all is certainly not lost. When life gives you lemons make lemonade. The very differences which cause the tension grant opportunities to proclaim the Gospel. The best preparation you can have is to know your faith intimately and live it confidently.

That is not the same as holding it defensively. Defensiveness is a position of fear, not of faith. Defensive religion becomes polarized and radicalized, defensive religion ultimately betrays itself by resorting to anti-religious behavior. Our trust is in the love of God for all of God's creation. That love is open enough to engage, brave enough to face danger, and strong enough to even be wounded in the process—and confident enough to know in the end it will be OK.

Be confident: In High School I was never really good at organized sports, but I could run. I couldn't sprint, but if you put me on a track I could keep going a long time. In one mile-long race at a field day in our school I was matched with a bigger, stronger boy. We started the run and he pulled out in front of me a long ways. I kept plugging away, and soon the distance began to shorten. By the end of the race he won by a hairs-breadth, and almost collapsed afterwards. The tortoise almost beat the hare! I did not have speed, but I did have something the other boy did not have. I had long-term stamina.

What the world's systems do not have is eternal stamina. What wins the day for us is not our offensive moves as much as our determination to hang on. Consequently, we can confidently trust the love of God.

The love of God is eternal. When all the cities of this world lie in ashes the love of God will still be there. What the world most fears and most needs are people that are confident that the Kingdom of God is on its way, people that are free to work for its coming confidently and openly, generously and freely, people who act like veterans of the ultimate war!