What’s Your Usual?

The conversation was pretty fascinating.  I had only known them for minutes, literally. It was the kind of conversation that only happens here, in DC.  Most of you know “them,” of course.

It’s a miracle of God that somehow (not really) we talked about Wednesday Morning Bible Study and service times at St. Alban’s.

“Shoot!  Both times are problematic for me because…” (elaborate in your mind great and very important reasons – like saving the world –  for not doing church).

Boldly I asked (there was wine) the forlorn if they were always so good at making excuses.

Luckily for me there was a close friend of my new conversation partner listening in.  “Usually not,” they chimed.

Happy Monday,

+Jim

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Forgotten in God’s Sight

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Luke 12:6-7

 

There is something terrifying and yet wonderful in the words of Jesus in this portion of the gospel reading appointed for the Eucharist service for today.  In essence Jesus is telling his disciples (and us as his disciples in this age) that God who knows and remembers even the slightest of creatures, knows us so intimately that no detail about us is forgotten–and more importantly–that we are of value to God.

 

For most of us, I think the first part about every action, thought, word, and deed being known about and remembered by God is the part that sticks.  And, usually, I suspect we only tend to think about it in the negative:  God remembers every little thing I do that was wrong/bad/horrible/manipulative, etc.  We are pretty capable of not letting go of a whole host of moments that we wish we could forget where we acted inappropriately, or maybe made someone feel small and insignificant, or even when we’ve caused someone else great hurt.

 

The harder part to remember, especially in the light of us being weighed down by the knowledge that God knows and remembers all of the “bad” things we do, is that God remembers all of the wonderful things that we’ve done–the times we’ve helped someone to feel important, or appreciated, or loved.  God also remembers and knows all of THOSE moments.

 

In both our best moments and our worst moments, we are of value to God.  In those moments when we cannot understand how anyone could love us, value us, care about us, cherish us…God does.  Yes, God wants us to be better than we are in those moments, to live more perfectly as God knows we can, but God never gives up on us and God never stops loving us.  We are never forgotten in God’s sight; we are of great value to God.

 

In Christ’s Name,

Matthewfirst

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Is That Relevant?

These are a few of my least favorite things: umbrellas, litter, slugs, and stinky cheese. And here’s a recent addition to the list – the word “relevant.” I noticed an advertisement in The Washington Post this past week for a concert by the Choir of Westminster Abbey at Washington National Cathedral. It suggests that this concert is: “Keeping ancient traditions ALIVE and RELEVANT in the modern world”.  Who said this? Reading it made me shudder.Westminster Abbey Choir advertisement 001

Expressing my dismay at this need to be relevant, I was pointed towards Henri Nouwen’s 1989 book In the Name of Jesus which warned of this very thing. For those who don’t know the book, Nouwen, specifically addressing clergy but admonishing all Christians, I believe, urges church leaders to beware of the temptation to be relevant (turn these stones into bread, Jesus), to be spectacular (show us how great you are, Jesus, by throwing yourself from this pinnacle and saving yourself), and to be powerful (which makes Nouwen wonder if we find it easier to be God than to love God).

That first one, the temptation to be relevant feeds our need, or a church’s need, to be productive, successful, competent. Relevancy requires a quantitative usefulness and measurable signs of success. Well, that pretty much defines everything I do as irrelevant. And those choir members from Westminster Abbey who rehearse and sing services daily, and then travel 3,000 miles from home to make music for an American audience? How to measure their productivity?

Fortunately Nouwen reminds the reader of Jesus’ response in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word – and for some, every musical note – that comes from the mouth of God. Nouwen believed that we are closer to the heart of God when we simply offer our vulnerable selves to God. For some, hearing a beautifully trained choir in a glorious space might not only help them to hear the voice of God more clearly, but might also call up all kinds of vulnerabilities – our irrelevancy, our lack of greatness, and our powerlessness. Hmmm…maybe that makes such an opportunity to hear a musical tradition come alive more relevant than I thought!

SonyaFirst004

 

 

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Where angels fear to tread

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19)

c62d29cf8868dfe6306b859d7f97bfd6I was a child when AIDS first came to the United States, sometime around our country’s bicentennial. My memory of that celebration centers on one brief episode. I was flying to New York City to meet my father, who, in the usual tradition of the Meisters, was going to leave town as soon as I arrived, fleeing the crowds. (I found this frustrating; I would like to have attended the bicentennial celebration, to have sat on his shoulders and watched the fireworks, which were sure to be spectacular. Fireworks on TV just aren’t the same at all.) Anyway, the pilot announced that we were going to fly over New York Harbor, where they had just unveiled the Statue of Liberty following its restoration. We all pressed toward the windows, and there it was, surrounded by a sea of small boats, so many boats that you could probably have walked on them from one side of the harbor to another without ever getting your feet wet. It was a glorious thing to see, all those people who wished our country well. Only years later did I read And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’ book about the early years of AIDS in the United States, and realize what a contagious disease could do in a place where everyone wanted to come.

Shilts’ book is a searing study of the effects of indifference, arrogance, and carelessness, and it has been much on my mind as we have watched the ebola crisis unfold around us. “Watched,” being the key word there. When AIDS first came to the United States, it cut a path through the gay community, and the rest of the country were largely indifferent to the fact that gay men were dying.  At the time, too many people still thought of them as contemptible, not seeing that they, too, were children of God.  Shilts points out somewhere that the government poured resources into Legionnaire’s Disease after it had harmed a handful of people, but it was years before they gave much attention to AIDS, and we all payed the price. The kids one or two years older than I grew up believing that if you had sex, you might get pregnant. My class knew that if you had sex, you might die.

Shilts’ book has been on my mind because I cannot help believing that we are doing it again. When ebola started in Africa, the people who were dying were poor, black, and far away, and located in countries with little strategic value, and neither we nor anyone else poured in the resources necessary to stop the spread of the disease. Our leaders even reminded us that “we” were safe, as if it didn’t matter that human beings were dying anyplace but here. And when we did finally respond, the resources do not seem to have been adequate to the challenge. Now the CDC is estimating that new infections may climb to 10,000 per month — and those are not numbers. They are men, women, and children whom God loves, and whom God commanded us to love, too.

Even now, we are not taking adequate steps to protect even the health of the persons in the United States. “We are not at risk,” our leaders keep saying, but people are beginning to die. Good people: Health workers who were brave enough to care for the suffering, a man trying to build a new life with his family. We don’t know the good they would have done, if they had been given the gift of years. Or the evil. We don’t know, and that’s the point.

What does it mean to love our brother? What does it mean to love the stranger? I am, as we all are, deeply imperfect in the art of love, but I do know this: it does not mean looking at a situation far away in which thousands of men, women, and children are dying, and decidingUnknown that it’s OK, because “we” are not there. It does not mean being arrogantly indifferent about our own risk either. It does not mean that when we see a predator, we wait until “enough” bodies stack up for us to determine it’s really a menace. It does mean that one dead person, here or abroad, black or white or brown or rich or poor or male or female, is too many. We follow a Lord who came and lived and died and rose from the dead so that the power of death would be broken, and we are not allowed to abet its power by our inaction.

The bitter thing here is that we do know how to stop the spread of infectious diseases. You hit them hard, right at the start. You use quarantines to arrest their spread. You don’t let people travel over regional or national borders until they are proven not to be carrying the disease. If you find someone who is infected, you give them help in a designated center where people are trained to assist them. It is that simple. And, apparently, that hard.

Near the end of her most recent book, Marilynne Robinson writes, “There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall upon them.” (Lila, p. 260And Unknown-1grace does not just fall from heaven, not always; most often, it comes toward us on human hands.

What would it look like to be bearers of grace toward all those who are suffering this thing? Can we dream something that big, that holy? Jesus said, “truly I tell you, whoever gives you even a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9:41)

 

 

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Proverbs

We Episcopalians are fortunate to have in our Daily Office Lectionary prescribed readings that take us through much of the Old Testament in a two year period and most of the New Testament several times in the same period. Some books get short shrift though. One of my favorites, the Proverbs, appears in the Lectionary only in the readings for Proper 3 in Year 2, and, of necessity, just a very small portion of the Book of Proverbs is used. I remarked to a friend recently that if people were more familiar with the Proverbs and their cautionary advice, they wouldn’t get in so much trouble. My suggestion to you today is just that: familiarize yourself with the Proverbs. In the words of one of our Collects “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” them. You’ll even find in them some familiar sayings about the source of which you might long have wondered.

And the approach I recommend to you is not to just get your Bible and read them once. No, like the Psalms, they are most beneficial through repetition. So I recommend adopting a way to read them on a frequent basis, as part of either morning or evening prayer, or noonday, or something. Notice that the Book of Proverbs is in 31 chapters. That suggests an obvious approach; one chapter a day, using the chapter that corresponds to the day of the month. That is, on the 15th of the month, chapter 15; chapter 21 on the 21st and so on. This is similar to the approach Thomas Cranmer laid out for reading the Psalms. Even if your reading is kind of randomly hit and miss, the chances are good that over a period of time you will experience them all to greater or lesser degree.

So dip in, and enjoy.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 14-Oct-2014.

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Take 5

It’s a noisy world.  And most of us are connected to that world all the live-long day… and night.  Are you LinkedIn?  If that weren’t enough, there’s the conversation in our heads. Our work, our kids, our health, what we did and didn’t do, what they think – whoever they are – and oh yeah, that image in the mirror – what’s with my hair?  A pimple, at 49…  What gives?

Is there an antidote?

Yes.

Pray.  But pray easy.  Just be quiet.  Forget the list.  Even the prayer list.  Take a break from the world’s churning and take a break from yourself. Forget your agenda.

Invite God.

There is a plan.

Happy Monday,

Jim+

 

 

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Reason Number 47

This week at the Vatican 200 cardinals of the Roman Catholic church are meeting with the Bishop of Rome to hash out a number of the positions the Catholic Church holds.  Most of the topics are difficult and weighty, but ones that the Episcopal Church has dealt with, in some cases, decades ago.

 

Reason number 47 why I am thankful to be an Episcopalian: I am divorced, remarried and have not been denied the sacrament of Holy Communion, nor I have been denied absolution for my sins–both things that divorced and/or remarried Roman Catholics have been denied for over 2,000 years.  (True, one can have a marriage annulled by the Catholic Church–but even the Church thinks that process is so long and cumbersome and difficult as to be nearly impossible.)

 

At the forefront of the debate are two cardinals, Kasper and Burke.  Kasper, a German, was asked by the Bishop of Rome to come and address the cardinals, to speak in favor of allowing those who have been divorced and/or remarried to receive Holy Communion.  On the other side of the equation is American cardinal Raymond Burke–the head of the top court for the Vatican.

 

Here is Burke’s response in an interview with Catholic News Services: “I cannot see how it can go forward if we are going to honor the words of our Lord himself, through which he said, ‘the man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.’ ”  Burke here is quoting Matthew 5:32.  (To read or hear the full article from NPR, which includes this quote from Burke, please click here)

 

I would remind the cardinal that only five verses before Jesus also said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30).

 

Last time I looked at any gathering of cardinals, I did not notice a single prosthetic hand, foot…and certainly no cardinals that I’m aware of wear eye patches.

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My point is that it is foolishness to pick and choose which parts of the gospel record of Jesus’ words you want to obey…and enforce.  You have to look at the entire body of the gospels as a whole.  Jesus says a lot of amazing things, challenging and difficult things, things that call us to be better than we are, to be more the beloved children of God which we all were created to be.  Further, I would argue that on the whole the message of Christ is one of Good News and mercy for all–ESPECIALLY the lost sheep, the sinners, the least of us…even the cardinals in Rome this week.

 

Turning people away from Holy Communion is exactly what Christ DIDN’T DO.  He ate with everyone from Pharisees to tax collectors and prostitutes.  I love that at St. Alban’s we invite EVERYONE to come to God’s table to receive the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I wish that everyone would know the joy of that moment.

 

And, to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters I will say this:  the doors at St. Alban’s are wide open and we are ready to greet you in the name of Christ’s peace and love.  We want EVERYONE to know the redemptive love of God in Christ, fulfilling some other words that Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (Matthew 9:13)  And when you arrive I hope that you will find a bit of those words being lived out here with us Episcopalians.

 

So, come to church with us, become a part of our community, and be welcomed no matter who you are.  This is the Episcopal Church and you are welcome here.  This is St. Alban’s Parish and we welcome the faithful, the doubter and the seeker, because God’s embrace is wide and God’s Good News is for all.

 

Matthewfirst

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