Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fire in the Belly

Pentecost 15, Proper 21, September 25, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal, Rev. Paul Moore

Beloved member of our parish, Russ Hantke, when he was growing up he always wanted to be a pony soldier.  When he grew up he quit college early and joined the Army, and he became a pony soldier.  We all have dreams like that, dreams of doing things and going places, and as long as we dream about them they are out there, far away, whose call forms us more than the reality.  It may be the Holy Land, or Paris, or Australia, it may be to climb a mountain, or write a book or learn a piano piece.  One of my dreams, ever since I knew about the place, was to go to Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  I've wanted to go there more than Jerusalem or Rome.  But when I actually saw the ancient Abbey across the sound it moved me almost to tears.  To stand beside St. Martin's Cross that has been standing as a Christian beacon for 1200 years, to feel the ancient stones of the Abbey and to pray where so many Christians have prayed before me, was an experience that made all the waiting, all the yearning and dreaming worthwhile, and the imaginings, the dreams and the hopes cannot compare to the real, flesh-and-blood experience of the place and what it means and is.

Our faith is rooted in events that happened 2000 years ago, and we read about it in the Bible and in history books, we hear the stories preached and acted out, we study the documents that describe our faith, and we learn about the places that were formative in it.  But there is just no substitute for a flesh-and-blood hands-on experience of the faith.  Like being a pony soldier or going to Iona, except infinitely more important, it makes it all come alive, and grants it the power to transform our lives immeasurably for the good.

You may ask, "How can that be, since Jesus lived so many years ago?"  And I can tell you that the Holy Spirit comes to live in each of our lives at Baptism, so Christ's spirit is within you, and that the moment that comes real to you is an amazing thing you'll never forget.  But that still won't do it.  All I can do is lead you to the water.  Just like for Russ to become a pony soldier he had to join the Army, and for me to come to know what Iona is I had to get on the airplane, for you to have a fire-in-the-belly experience of your faith you have to do the things that your faith requires.

And what are those things?

There are three broad categories of things, and all you Cursillistas will understand them instantly.  The first is the life of prayer.  Prayer is any conversation in which God is a partner, either directly or indirectly.  So prayer is an arrow prayer of gratitude and relief shot to heaven when some jerk just missed your fender in heavy traffic.  Prayer is a quiet moment of silence in which you allow the voice of the Spirit to break through the business of daily living and anchor you in peace.  Prayer is gathering with the faithful on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and at other times to sing the songs of our faith, to hear Scripture read and preached, and to respond to God in sacramental actions.  Prayer is huddling with others of like concern and voicing a common joy or pain to God.  You may feel uncomfortable with one or more of these things, but the important thing is to do what you can.

The next is the life of study.  Can you tell me if these quotes are in the Bible or not?

Create in me a clean heart.
      Come, my love.
      All we like sheep have gone astray.
      God so loved the world.
      The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
      Come, Lord Jesus.

All of those are in the Bible.  The first three are in the Old Testament, the second in the New.  You say I’m supposed to know that, but you, could, too!  It is important to know what is contained in the Bible, and in the Book of Common Prayer.  It is important to maintain a diet of good godly books written about the spiritual life.  But it is equally important to let the written word become God's spoken word in the secret places of your heart, to allow the words to sink in, to challenge and change behavior, and to open your heart and your mind to new dimensions of God's truth.  Find it hard to get traction on this?  Come to Sunday School!

Finally, there is the life of action.  Putting feet on the love of God in some fashion or other in the world is an essential expression of our faith.  There are those in the parish who set the example, who volunteer at social service organizations in town and abroad.  Some teach anger management classes, parenting classes, or counsel with those who struggle with life.  Others teach our Sunday School classes and other Christian Education events in the parish.  Some sing or play an instrument or serve at the altar.  Others help clean up, organize and lead, or do a host of other things.  Again, you may feel uncomfortable with one or more of these options, but the important thing is to get out there and do something.

People speak of the blind leap of faith.  The blind leap of faith is not so much the mental effort of believing something you find difficult to accept, as doing something you might not ordinarily do, something that is consistent with the faith you espouse, something done as an act of faith.  There is just no substitute for showing up, being there and getting involved.  Armchair religion is easy, it is relaxed, undemanding, and safe.  First-hand experience is always more dangerous.  There is no telling when the fire will start in your belly, when it will begin to transform your life, and through you, transform your world.

Two Kingdoms

Pentecost14, Proper 20, September 18, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal, Rev. Paul Moore

What if there were here in Killeen a place that, whenever you went there, without fail you got the one thing that is noticeably absent in the rest of your life, the one thing you crave in the midst of the craziness and selfishness, the one thing that settles your soul and gives you perspective: Peace?  How often would you go?  How often would you take your friends?  How popular would it be among the people of this town, of this county, of this state?

Such a place exists.  In fact, there are many of them.  One such place is in the largest city in the world.  The place is so large you can see it on Google Earth from a mile above the city.  The largest church on the property can seat 10,000 people.  It holds what brings the people there, the tilma or poncho of Juan Diego.  People come there from miles away, some of them on their hands and knees.  It is the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Without exception and without equal, what people get when they go to a place of pilgrimage, is by a sense of peace and tranquility.  They can get that peace in these places, but not in the rest of their world.  These places stand as witnesses to an alternate reality, a different dimension in stark and sudden contrast to the world in which we normally live.  And they stand as witnesses to the Church that the Gospel we preach is a Gospel of peace, not as the world knows or gives, but as God alone gives.  We call it "The Kingdom of God."

The Kingdom of God is that alternate reality in which what is true and right and good and living holds sway.  In the final analysis, it is not just an alternate reality, one among many, but the only real reality.  The other world we live in, the world of power-driven self-centeredness, is the alternate reality, the less-than-reality that we project on one another.  Whenever these two realities, these two great kingdoms collide there is an upheaval, as the real reality begins to reorder and remake the less-than-reality we still believe in.

Today's readings all deal with that upheaval.  In the Old Testament lesson Jonah is sent to Nineveh to preach the judgment of God.  Much to his chagrin the people repent and turn to the Lord.  In a sense what Jonah preached did come to fall, because in the face of truth the people chose truth over their own previously held world, and the old passed away, a new city was born.  But Jonah is not impressed.  He is thinking in the ways of the kingdoms of this world, and not the Kingdom of God.  He desperately wanted to see God wipe out this ancient enemy of Israel for moral decay.  God sets up a parable of a vine and a worm to help Jonah understand his own message.  God is truly the God of unexpected and undeserved mercy.

One of the reasons we baptize infants is specifically because they cannot respond for themselves.  It makes it abundantly clear that God is the one who grants mercy, for God's own sake,  and ultimately it has nothing to do with our worthiness.  It has everything to do with who God is.  God does not ask, "What if this person goes out to become a axe murderer or a drug pusher?"  God has already extended His mercy to that person, and laid it on the table, right there for the taking.  We are offered forgiveness even before we have a chance to sin.  If God is that reckless in dispensing mercy, should not we be the same?  Who is it that has offended you?  The sooner you forgive the sooner you see the Kingdom come.

In the Epistle lesson Paul struggles with his desire to be with the Lord and the need of the church.  What a quandary, to be caught between the delights of heaven and the joys of earth!  He settles on this life, for it is necessary for the good of the church, and offers that struggle to the Philippians to inspire them to sacrificial living in a world that doesn't believe in it.  He chooses to stay in order to share the blessings God brings in community, for God is truly the God of unexpected graces.

God is truly the God of unexpected graces in the community of believers.  Since the beginning of the fire season more than 1500 people have lost their homes in Texas, 800 of them in the Bastrop area alone.  Some lost literally everything but the shirts on their backs.  To respond as the world’s kingdom suggests would be to blame the victims for their suffering:  “They deserved it.  God is punishing them.”  “If they hadn’t built where they did this wouldn’t be happening to them,” and “it’s not my problem.”  But as a nation we have touched another dimension and responded differently.  People from all over are rising to the challenge of their need.  They are the hands and heart of God, walking with them through the suffering, into newness of life to come.  We know that nothing happens without God knowing and being there with us.  We are not alone, there is always hope.  If we hang together there is nothing we cannot weather, for God is with us.  When two or three are gathered in His name there He is among us.  It’s a Kingdom thing to do.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus tells the parable about a landowner and his day-laborers.  The scandal of this story is in his remuneration of the people who worked for him.  It had nothing to do with the amount of work they had put in, and everything to do with their need.  There are two clues in the text that show us this.  First, those hired first complain that he has made those hired later “equal to us…”  Their mind is on their honor, not the welfare of the others.  But the landowner clearly works from a different kind of place, for he promises those he hires at nine o’clock to pay them what is “right.”  “Right” to him is a day’s wage, enough for them to satisfy their obligations.  The landowner obviously is not worried about his bottom line, he is concerned with his employee’s bottom line—the welfare of others.  He operates from a mentality of abundance, not scarcity; an assumption of plenty, not want, for God is the God of unexpected abundance.

The church has already set up pathways by which you can respond to the needs of those in Bastrop.  Just like the landowner who valued the people more than their contribution, our brothers and sisters in Bastrop are important to us.  There is an abundance in our hands out of which to share, not a scarcity to protect.  If we reach into our pockets in love and faith we will find that they are deeper than we thought.  We can give out of the abundance the Lord has given us to make sure they are alright.  After all, it is a Kingdom thing to do.

In our lives and in our worlds two kingdoms constantly collide.  In which one will you live?  The real one or the less-than-real one?

Monday, September 12, 2011


In Remembrance

9/11 is a time to remember.  Cecilio Gonzalez was a Sergeant with the NYC Health Department Police Unit.  On that morning he dropped his son off at school and headed to the area he normally patrols.  He noted an extraordinary amount of traffic, but when he turned to look at the WTC he saw tower 1 billowing smoke.  Unable to use his normal route, he finally got off the freeway to see police and firefighters on their way to the scene.  He thought, "There are my brothers and sisters in red and blue, doing what they do best!"  When he arrived he and set up a perimeter and an incident command center for the health department.  He managed traffic to let first responder vehicles through.  He drove his own truck to local pharmacies to pick up medical supplies.  He went for water, he went for orange juice (that was donated on the spur of the moment,) he did whatever he could do for 16 hours straight.  That night with 20 other officials he secured the perimeters of lower Manhattan.  Then Cecilio went home and cried for 3 days.  He says, "Till this day I still see the yellow haze and feel the choking dust in my lungs, oh yeah I was given a souvenir "WTC Cough", 1 year later I still have it."

In the book of Genesis 11 of Jacob’s sons sold the 12th , Joseph, into slavery because of jealousy, but God was with Joseph and he soon became second in command under Pharaoh.  When Jacob died the other brothers feared reprisal.  Joseph remembered what they had done, but he also remembered what God had done.  It is important to remember well and to place one’s memories in the context of faith.  What were you doing that day?  What was your response?  To whom did you say that you loved them?  How did you avail yourself of your faith on that day?  We must never forget.

9/11 is a time to forgive.  Sharon woke up normally on that morning and went to work in New Jersey.  At work a co-worker told her of the events.  She began to wonder and to fear.  What else would happen?  Who could have done this?  Nobody knew, nobody seemed to have any information.  She began to try to pray the Lord's Prayer.  She got stuck on "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."  She couldn't stop thinking of all the people who got up that morning and slapped their alarm clocks, showered, grabbed coffee and rushed off to work like she did, but never came home.  In subsequent days, aware of the ease with which our lives can end she committed herself to approach every other fragile life with love, not hate.

The heinous nature of what we suffered that day cannot be denied or minimized.  There is no justifying and there is no forgetting.  But there is forgiving.  Humanity was forgiven the most heinous act of all—of killing God on the cross.  We have been forgiven all the little and big things we've done since.  We've even been forgiven what we don't realize yet that we have done, although someday we will.  It is only right that we forgive as we have been forgiven.  He who does not forgive cuts himself off from the Father, and condemns himself to bear an unbearable load of bitterness and grief, making himself one more casualty of the offense.  Jesus teaches us over and over to forgive.  For the Christian there must be forgiving.

9/11 is a time to live differently.  Pat was an Airforce E-6, Master Staff Sergeant assigned to the Pentagon on September 11th.  He is also a master mechanic and maintains all of his own vehicles.  On that morning could not get any of his household vehicles to start.  When he finally got his wife's car running he left for work.  As he approached the Pentagon he watched in horror as American Airlines Flight 77 crashed through is office window.  He spent the next two days pulling the wounded and the dead out of the wreckage; when he got home his uniform went into the trash.  Pat is now retired.  He lives in Florida with his wife.  His children are all grown, the house is paid off.  He says, "We have enough," and he spends his time doing volunteer work in his community.  It is something he never would have done before 9/11 but the experience of it changed his life.

How has it changed yours?  You weren’t in the towers.  You weren’t in those rooms at the Pentagon.  You weren’t on flight 93.  You live among a people who are good under pressure.  You have a lot to be grateful for.  How best will you express it in view of today, the 10th anniversary of that day?

9/11: A time to remember, a time to forgive, a time to live differently.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tidal Treacheries

The Romans invaded the Island of Britain in the first century, and Christian soldiers were among the first English to found churches in Kent, as early as the 2nd century.  But as Rome weakened under Vandal invasions its ability maintain control of its far-flung provinces waned.  In the 5th century the Romans pulled out leaving behind a few scattered Christians and a bunch of building projects made of stone.  In the 5th and 6th centuries on the northeast coast of England, in an area known as Northumbria, Angles and Saxons invaded, driving the Britons back down into southern England on the heals of the retreating Romans.  They were of Germanic stock, and, melding with the Celtic Briton's and Picts, came to be what we now know as the English.
In the 7th century the crown prince of Northumbria, Oswald, was spirited away to Iona for safekeeping during internal strife in the kingdom, where he was baptized a Christian.  When all was said and done Oswald became king.  He sent to Iona for missionaries to convert his pagan people.  Earlier attempts by the more Roman church to the south failed, but Aidan's Celtic practice and mild and humble ways commended themselves to the English. In typical Celtic style, instead of setting up a cathedral church in a town, he selected something more monastic and more rustic, the island of Lindisfarne.

Well, it's sometimes and island and sometimes a peninsula.  There is a great tidal flat between it and the mainland, cutting it off for several hours out of each 12 at high tide.  Best to watch the tides, too.  They are high and they are a force to be reckoned with.  What is clearly a dry road during low tide is covered by enough water to flood your car and wash it off the pavement.  If there is anything worth retrieving afterwards you are just darn lucky.  And afoot it is no better.  There is a "pilgrim's path" marked with high poles visible even at high tide.  Best stick to the markers because changing quicksand lurks beyond.  We heard a haunting tale of a mother with children who went out to dig clams.  Caught in quicksand, the incoming tide drowned them all before they could be pulled to safety.  Drivers are warned over and over again not to attempt to cross except during low tide.

And these were not the only dangers.  Kings of Northumbria built castles along the coast, from point to point, creating a visual link all along the coastline to guard against Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries.  One such castle inhabits another corner of Lindisfarne Island.  They were not entirely successful at their task however.  Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings more than once.  Most of the monks fled to Durham, inland, taking with them the Lindisfarne Gospels, a richly decorated book done in wonderfully ornate Celtic style, reminiscent of the Book of Kells.  The Priory Church, however, was reduced to ruin.  Rebuilt, it suffered like most monasteries under King Henry the VIII and was suppressed.  The only surviving building that is in current use is St. Mary's Church of England Parish, which is built on foundations dating back to the 8th century and has parts of its upper structure from the 12th and 13th.  The Priory Church and its compound itself, standing just yards from the parish church, is one magnificent sandstone ruin.

What drew these ancient Celts to such dangerous places?  One of Aidan's disciples, Cuthbert, chose another island 10 miles to the south, separated by a mile from the shore, with steep rock sides and nothing but seals and sea-birds to build a hermitage and pray.  Perhaps here is the answer.  Legends tell of the sea-birds and seals bringing Cuthbert fish to eat.  One story tells how he dug a hole in the rock, prayed, and in the morning it was full of fresh water.  From then on it was never dry, but always provided the saint with water.  Perhaps they sought to live out what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "I will glory in my weakness."  When we are weak the opportunity for grace to excel is made more obvious.  When these Celts meekly and humbly put themselves in such harsh and inhospitable places they found it easier to see the hand of God providing and protecting them.  Cuthbert was supposed to have passed many a night's vigil submerged up to his neck in the cold north Atlantic waters to mortify the flesh and vanquish his fleshly desires.  Again, making himself weak, God could be strong in him.  Tradition has it that when his body was taken from Lindisfarne to its final resting place in the Cathedral in Durham 150 years after his death monks opened the coffin to find that his body lay just as it was when first buried, "uncorrupt"--a testimony to his great holiness.

Perhaps it was fitting that the day Landon and I spent there it rained all day!