Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Surely it is God who saves us

The children of God:  Charlotte Bacon, 6, Daniel Barden, 7, Olivia Engel, 6, Josephine Gay, 7, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6, Dylan Hockley, 6, Madeleine F. Hsu, 6, Catherine V. Hubbard, 6, Chase Kowalski, 7, Jesse Lewis, 6, James Mattioli, 6, Grace McDonnell, 7, Emilie Parker, 6, Jack Pinto, 6, Noah Pozner, 6, Caroline Previdi, 6, Jessica Rekos, 6, Avielle Richman, 6, Benjamin Wheeler, 6, Allison N. Wyatt, 6.
The staff, also children of God: Rachel Davino, 29, Dawn Hochsprung, 47, Anne Marie Murphy, 52, Lauren Rousseau, 30, Mary Sherlach, 56, Victoria Soto, 27.
A mother, also a child of God: Nancy Lanza
Another child of God:  Adam Lanza

Those were their names.  Each one a bit anonymous to us, but oh, so alive and present to those who loved them.

As so many have noted, all of them with promise and life ahead of them.  And not just the children:  there were two fairly new teachers who lived for their days in their classrooms, and there was the school psychologist who had spent her whole life with kids and was planning to retire in a few years.  Each one of them had a life still yet to live and it was taken from them.

And there is no sense in trying to dance on the head of a pin:  their lives were taken by evil personified in one young man.  We’ll never know why:  was he sick, was he lonely, was he angry – all those answers to our anguished “Why’s” died with him, and with the mother he also killed.

The basic answer is some of our why’s is that we have free will.  God made us that way – to make choices about how to live our lives.  Some of us, unfortunately, due to mental illness, are unable to exercise free will as God meant it to be, I think.  And some of us have chosen, yes, have chosen, to live comfortably with evil.

That is one of the paradoxes of Christian life I spoke about last week.  That we are a people who live in paradox.  And this week it was brought home to us:  we try to be a people who live in the light, but there are some who live in the dark.  And since we are a people called to be in the world but not of it, we do have to acknowledge the darkness in the midst of our light.

But we do not have to succumb to it.  We can choose over and over again, to not spend our time cursing the evil or the darkness, but rather light candles to illuminate it with the light of Christ.

In another paradox, this is Gaudete Sunday, that of the pink candle.  It takes its name from the Latin for Rejoice, the first word in the lesson from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Phillippi. 

But how can we rejoice?  I don’t; I don’t rejoice that Dylan and Avielle and Victoria are with God, and I doubt that their families do either. 

And I really believe that God knows we have little to rejoice about this particular Gaudete Sunday.  After all, on December 26 we remember the Holy Innocents, the little ones in Bethlehem who were slaughtered because Herod was paranoid and looking for Jesus.  Jesus died for us, and that should be enough.

But it is not.  Because evil still exists, and it will still exist, this side of the Kingdom.  But it is also our responsibility and part of our baptismal covenant to resist evil wherever we find it.

And we may find it individually in the young man with a grudge.  We can also find it corporately:  the twenty little six and seven-year-old children will be remembered and become icons, while the 26-year-old killed in Norfolk will be a footnote in the newspaper.   Any death should grieve us, any death should be an occasion for lighting candles in the darkness, but we all know that some lives have more importance than others.

I wish I had more words of comfort today.  Like you, I am grieved, and I can barely read those names, much less say them, without wanting to weep. 

But the refrain I keep coming back to is the first two lines of the lesson from Isaiah that we read this morning.

Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense and he will be my Saviour.

There is a lovely setting for that Canticle which includes those lines as a refrain. 

I would like to teach you that tune, that refrain, so that in the days and weeks to come, you can hum it to yourself, or sing it out loud, to remind yourself that God is still present with us, still grieves with us, and still works with us so that the light will overcome the darkness.

But let’s do this – let’s change that 1st person singular pronoun me to US.  For God so loved the world that he gave his son for all of us – not just for one or two of us.  For all of us, even the ones who live in the darkness.  Jesus died so that we may continue to live and continue to hope – and continue to trust in God.

Surely it is God who saves us,
we will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is our stronghold and our sure defense
and he will be our Saviour.

(if you would like to hear the Canticle setting in its entirety, Google “Jack Noble White Song of Isaiah”     You will find some wonderful choral performances on YouTube.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Prophets among us

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent
 Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

One of the more interesting things about Christians is that we are a people of paradox.
A seemingly absurd statement that turns out to be true.  Like a baby born in a stable who is a king.

That’s only the beginning of the paradoxes for us.

You and I still practice one of the best every Sunday morning as we read the scriptures and respond to them.  The Word of the Lord, one says, to which we all respond, “Thanks be to God!”    Or The Gospel of the Lord, and then we all say “Praise to you, Lord Christ.”

We say those things when often the lessons are not about things we would be thankful for, or praising for, if we were brutally honest.

This morning that’s the situation about John.   You don’t have to know much to know that this brief pericope about John is only the beginning of a horrible end for him.   A tyrannical ruler, besotted with women, caves in to the demands of an Ancient Near East Lolita and has John executed – for what?  Telling the truth.

I am not thankful about that, nor do I praise God for it.

But that is the life of a prophet.   Thankless, praiseless.   No one wanting to hear your words.  No matter how life-giving or beneficial those words might be.

Some of you are prophets and I bet you don’t realize it.
Perhaps you work now or have worked with children who have few others to speak for them.
Perhaps you are one who listens to sick folks when no one else does and keeps them company as they journey though illness.
Perhaps you, in the routine of your day, see that simple justice is done by keeping faith and standards in a world where honesty and integrity are often completely forgotten.

Those are only a few examples.

You don’t have to be a John or an Isaiah to tell the world it needs to change.

I read an interesting comment this week, that before we can identify sin, or where the world is apart from the will of God, we have to have known a place where the world is striving to do the will of God.

You can honestly say, “This is not the way things are supposed to be.”
Because you have both an innate sense and a cultivated sense of how things ought to be.

But it’s hard to be the one who speaks out when others are happy to just go along.

Martin Luther King was one.  When he was jailed in Birmingham in the early 1960’s for one of the marches, did you know that a number of prominent Birmingham ministers, including some Episcopal ones, wrote him a letter asking him to wait?  They wanted him to wait a bit longer, they said this was not the time.  “Not right now, Martin, not right now.”

And King’s response, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, asks the question,  “How long?”  How long do we wait for justice in the face of injustice?  One thousand years?  One hundred years?  Or one year?

Unfortunately, examples like Martin Luther King are often only examples because something makes them bigger than life – and often that something is death.

There are many other lesser known prophets toiling in our community, in our country, in the world, seeking to make the world into the place where they know “This IS the way it should be.”

Where children are honored for being people, and not just another mouth, impossible to feed.  Where people actually have a vote that truly gives them a voice in the government they live under.  Where a hand reaching up for aid, meets a hand reaching down to help pull you out of the muck of a disaster.

Knowing what life is like, and what it should be like requires change.   And someone to lead the change.

Metanoia is the technical term for that change.  It’s described as a 180 degree turn-around in one’s life,
a change from what you were to what you will be.

But we all must be the prophets who say, no, really, shout,  “Here is the place where change is needed.”  “Here is the place where God is leading us all to be.” And we’re not there yet. 

For you can turn around 180 degrees and still be walking in the wrong direction.

It is only by listening to the prophets among us and to God in the midst of us that we can find the right direction.  As one of the Eastern wise men has said, you must be the change you wish to see.

But how will we get there?   My friends, we don’t get to the world Jesus described by sitting here in our comfort and on our comfort!

Another paradox is that ours is a faith of coming – and going. Coming together to be refreshed, to be fed in the scriptures, and then going to do the work we have been given to do.

What work?  To love God and to love our neighbor as we love God. To see that our neighbor’s needs are met as if our neighbor were Christ himself.  And to do mercy in the name of God, wherever we find it lacking.

Another paradox is that we may occasionally find ourselves on the wrong road, as we seek to follow Jesus.  But the flip side of that paradox, is that if we are really trying to find Jesus, we have an internal self-correcting compass, found in our baptismal covenant, that will get us back on the right road. 

The road that leads to life, not death.

As we prayed today, “Give us grace to heed the warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”    AMEN.

Monday, October 8, 2012

In thanksgiving for Mark and Wendy: The Sunday after their wedding

October 7 (Proper 22):  Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her."

But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Ah, another day of difficult lessons.  Which ones shall we choose to preach about, is the refrain of my clergy friends.   Which ones, indeed.

Shall we mention Job, a righteous man, whom God allows to be tormented by the devil, just to  prove his faithfulness?  Or shall we mention that VERY difficult lesson about marriage? Or the more difficult lesson about children, and their participation in a life of faith?

I’m going to go a slightly different way and focus on the hope that Jesus calls us all to when he talks about Divorce and Children – in one lesson.

I was part of a joyful celebration yesterday, and two who were one were joined together.  Let no one separate them, says Jesus.  And I say, let them not separate themselves.  And several months from now, this couple will find their lives changing in another way – baby #1 is due to arrive in December!

Two of the most active parts of the wedding were the groom’s nephews.  Five and three, plus a bit more for each, they were not quite into the more reverent moments.  I spent the meal being entertained by the 5 yr old who was drawing pictures and totally clueless to ‘the importance’ of what was going on, no matter how often his mother said it was someone else’s big day.

Now you might think this is kind of funny, coming from a priest who is not married, and has no children.  But I think this is one place where we all fail to honor Jesus’ teachings.

Because, my friends, Jesus is a giving ALL of us a model, a model of faithfulness in marriage, and a model of faithfulness in raising up the next generation.  But they are both models which we often fail at.  And that’s a fact.

Examine those lessons closely again.
Jesus does not follow his words about marriage and adultery with words that say we are no longer his if we fail to honor our marriages.
And he does not say that the children are welcome only when they are well-behaved.

I’m here to say that while we have a standard, it is a standard that we will fail at.   All of us.  And while we will fail at it, we must, over and over again, try again.

Marriage is much like how a child grows.  Did any of you who are married know what you were getting into when you were first married?  I think not, even if you had lived together for some time.

It is the same with raising children.  No matter how well prepared your nursery is, and how many birthing classes you have taken, you still don’t know so much.

I was thinking yesterday of a friends whose baby #1 was perfect, no muss, no fuss.  Several years later, Baby #2 was quite the opposite experience.  He had colic from day one and it took nearly a year for the pediatrician to light on the right combo of meds to overcome it.  I think if #2 had been #1, there would not have been another child for Kelley and Susan.

I recall going over to their house on occasion to babysit #2 so mom and day and #1 could get some time together.  Even if all they did was nap and watch TV.  But both #1 and #2 are grown and married and doing well these days.

The point is that whether we are making a marriage or raising children, we learn as we go. And since we are only learning, we have to understand that we will fail.
“Ah Guar-an-tee it” as that TV Cajun cook used to say.

But just because we know we will fail, there is no real reason why we should not keep trying.

However, and this is a big however, to keep trying also means to forgive ourselves.  Because sometimes there will be that one relationship, whether of spouse or child, where things are not working.  The marriage was simply to the wrong person, or you have grown into people with different needs and wants. The child, now grown and responsible for themselves, has chosen a way of life that is not your way of life.

Sometimes we have to learn to let go of our preconceived notions of what a relationship will look like in the future.   That may – or may not – mean letting go of the relationship. Often what it means it taking the relationship to a new place. A different place than what we expected.

One in which a couple are no longer married but can remain, if not friends, at least civil to each other.  One in which a parent lets go of parental expectations, and sees “their” child for the child of God that they really are – unique in this world.

Those friends of mine with the different children?  I knew them from high school, but they moved to NC about 15 years ago, for HER job transfer. My friends are themselves a social worker and a lawyer – and both of whom had midlife career changes to get there.   And by the way, he’s the social worker and she’s the lawyer.
Child #2, the difficult one, is pretty traditional in his outlook and lifestyle.  There’s nothing much about him to report that’s not what we ‘expected,’ whatever those expectations might have been.  Child #1, the easy one, blew off higher education.  He has some of the most interesting ink on his body that I’ve ever seen – and so does his wife.  And now, closer to 30 than 20, he’s back in school.

Yes, you could say that nothing in that family was kind of expected.  But throughout the years that I’ve known them, which has included some years when communication was only via email or Christmas letters, I’ve been impressed.  Two people whose marriage has been challenged at every turn, and whose marriage looks conventional only to those who have not known them for so long.  Two children who have turned out in some very interesting ways.

Don’t get me wrong:  God has standards for all of us.  Even if you don’t fall into these particular lessons, there are still those pesky commandments to deal with.

It would be wonderful if life were such that we were always in full obedience to what God has required of us.  I don’t mean just honoring marriage, or not murdering each other.
How are we doing with that coveting thing?  Anybody here who has never coveted anything that belonged to someone else?
Or honoring parents, or other elders?  Are we doing all that we could?
And what about honoring God?  Have you never slept in on Sunday mornings?

The point here is that we have standards – and God knows we will fail at them.  Yesterday, today and tomorrow, we have failed, and we will fail again.  Yet our God does not throw us into the fires of hell for failing.   Instead he invites us, again and again, to get up and try once more.
My friends, don’t give up on yourselves.
Don’t give up on those you love, or even those you just like.
Because God is not giving up on you.
God has never given up on you.

I ask that you remember that the next time you have a fight with your spouse.  I ask that you remember that the next time you see one of the children here do something disruptive.  I ask that you forgive yourself the next time you accidentally do something hurtful or break one of those commandments.

It might feel a bit corny to say so, but each one of us is still a work in progress.
Young or old, each one of us is still learning what it truly means to be one of God’s children.
“God is not finished with us yet.”

And that’s not just a phrase for children.  Thanks be to God that God is not finished with any one of us yet!