The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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The Work We Must Do

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 | Philippians 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32

Saturday night marks the end of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, one of if not the most important day in the Jewish calendar. A day of prayer and fasting begun at sundown Friday evening, it’s not only a time of acknowledging one’s own wrongdoing, such as unfulfilled vows to God, but also a time to seek forgiveness. Every time we come together for corporate worship–whether it’s the Daily Office or the Holy Eucharist–we can pray our general confession as well as the Lord’s prayer. Twice in our worship today, we ask forgiveness not only for what we’ve done in thought, word, and deed but also for what we’ve left undone and for forgiveness of our trespasses, where we’ve crossed a line or committed an offense against someone else . . . as well as forgiving their trespasses toward us. We do this not to live in perpetual guilt but so we remain awake, fully aware of what is going on in our whole lives, mind, body, and spirit. We do this because when we make our baptismal vows, we promise that when we sin (not if but when), we will repent; we will re-orient ourselves toward God. We do this because we are not perfect, because on our own, we don’t have the ability to fulfill the yearning for a life lived fully, authentically, rich with wonder and purpose.

Throughout Scripture, time and time again, we get the message that it’s not us who can solve things alone.

In Exodus, again we hear the people raising their voices at Moses. They “quarreled” with him. If they didn’t have water to drink–in the desert of all places–I cannot imagine this is a lighthearted disagreement, and we get clarification when Moses tells the Lord that the people “are almost ready to stone (him).” Not only are they quarreling with Moses, but Moses says they are testing the LORD. All the things the LORD has done, now they test Him again, questioning as Moses said, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Yet God provides. Here in Exodus, Moses and Aaron do what the LORD says. The same story in Numbers (Chapter 20) has Moses strike the rock and take credit for what God has provided, receiving the promise that he will not make it to the promised land. It wasn’t Moses alone who provided water for the people of God.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the chief priests and elders deceitfully prompt Jesus with a trick question, one they hope will incriminate himself. Jesus, however, turns the table with full transparency, unveiling the very criteria to which they themselves are held accountable. In their unwillingness to state their own position about where John the Baptist came from, they showed themselves unworthy before Jesus to receive the Truth. How different the moment in the gospel would have been if the elders had been honest about their struggle, given ear to Jesus as the Philippians did to Paul about what constituted righteousness, about what mattered. If they had, Jesus could have shared with them what Paul shares to the Philippians, what Jesus shared with his disciples: that there is complete joy to be had in love of one another through Christ who comes from the Father, that abiding in love with love of God is the utmost fulfillment we can attain this side of Glory.

Presumably written from prison, Paul shares his letter to the Philippians with love and affection, including in our reading today what may have been a “Christ hymn,” something familiar to the community. What truly matters to the welfare of the people is having the same mind, love, and agreement–rooted in Christ. This was to be their work, to “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling” since it “is God who is at work in you.” Reading this correspondence, it doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to hear how the Holy Spirit might speak to us from the Word. Are we as a people of one mind? Are we willing to let God work through us, in us, for the sake of love of God alone? For love? For joy?

There’s an article titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans” by Andrew Sullivan, noted to be a conservative political commentator. In it, the whole premise is that because humans are tribal creatures, America isn’t the best set-up. From the beginning of humanity, tribalism was a good thing, necessary for survival. You know who your people are, you’re working toward the same goals, you share the same myths to understand the world and the supernatural. I want nothing more for my daughter at college than for her to find her tribe, because our tribes can be a good thing. But tribes of around 50 are quite different than a tribe of 323 million. Naturally, we have many tribes within America, and we want to sort and classify everyone so we can understand not only others but also ourselves. From the beginning of our nation, Sullivan figures, “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.” Surely they must have thought that common values rooted in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be enough to keep us united. Sullivan himself hopes that America can find common ground under one president.

But I warrant that placing our hopes upon any one person or even a group of persons alone is not enough. This is hard work, this working out of our survival, especially our salvation. It’s okay for it to be a struggle. Our tradition provides many examples of people wrestling physically, verbally, and emotionally with God or God’s messengers. Think of Jacob, Jonah, and Paul. Like them, if we truly engage, we are not the same person after a genuine encounter with God. Most of the time, if our endeavor is entered whole-heartedly, we are transformed by the experience because the struggle moves us deeper into relationship with God. The closer we are to God, the clearer it can be to see how we’ve lost our way, how much we need God and one another to be fully restored.

The key to a full restoration, the hope for us all is that our humanity can be transformed by the life of Christ, by an understanding and practice of life that restores us to unity in God.

It’s true that we don’t have to be Christian to be good people, but as Christians, we have a unique responsibility to bring about reconciliation and restoration to unity to God through Jesus Christ. How do we do that? As Paul told the Philippians, we have to be of one mind in Christ. This might sound idealistic, but I believe it gets at the core of what a Beloved Community is. It’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female: it’s here and now, inclusive of all. But it’s going to be hard, admitting when we’re wrong and losing our lives–especially losing perceived control of our lives–for the sake of true salvation in God. If we can make this sacrifice, then we might be able to taste the exquisite beauty and ultimate freedom in a life given over to God . . . our best opportunity to experience joy made complete.

All this is easy to talk about, especially in context of characters of the past. But the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Scripture now as then. The clarion call for us all to have the mind of Christ rings loudly and earnestly today, but how do we get it? As Episcopalians, we do engage in Scripture; we have Bible studies. I challenge you to take this reading from Philippians, to take it and read it at least two to three times per day this week. When the Bishop comes next week, see how you hear his message, notice how you welcome our newly confirmed and received, observe how you listen to the news. Will it have changed with a constant focus on who Christ is? Can we put on the mind of Christ and “be the change we wish to see in the world” (to borrow a quote from Gandhi)? We won’t know if we don’t try, and this is the work we must do.

 

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Mother Mary

A sweet friend today shared in conversation that a Bible study she and her husband are going to has brought a greater Christ-focus to this Christmas season, an unexpected emotional and spiritual experience.  In turn, I told her that I was nearly overcome with tears at the Gospel processional, so deeply moving did I find the words, the music, and the sentiment.  Whether it’s by the year, season, or hour, the ebb and flow of our Godly focus varies greatly.

This day when the visitation of Mary is shared, I feel the tenderness radiate through the entire service.  The femininity and tenderness intertwine with the strength and reality of what is and is to come.  Mary answered God’s call with a willingness to serve.  As our priest this morning put it, most of us can relate to an “Oh-crap-what-have-I-done” moment when the reality of our servitude sinks in.  No such moments are related in Mary’s tale, but knowing what we do of the society and culture she lived in, her pregnancy and unwed status were scandalous (not entirely unlike today).  Surely even the mother of Christ had doubts.

We are human.  We doubt and question.  Then the pendulum swings, and we rejoice and praise.  I have a feeling that the trajectory isn’t linear.  I imagine the circle being traced again and again, though at different levels.  Sometimes we might stall, but often once we are set in motion, we keep going, following our path.

May we carry on in God’s will with the faith and willingness of Mary, blessed with a good mother’s love.

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Day 3

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

You’ve given me to be one of those people who get headaches, and I’ve had all kinds.  Dull, ice-pick, tension, stress, heat, sinus, barometric, migraine.

You’ve also given me a gift of healing.  Now, I know how that works.  The truth is, I don’t do anything.  I just call upon you.  I tend to practice this gift with others.  I’m not very good at using it for myself.  That seems to take extra energy, extra effort.  How quickly I forget that you are ever-present and that strength through you knows no bounds.

I’m reminded of your love and compassion in the faces of those who are guests in our country this weekend, especially in the one who is our guest in our home.  Their people have known suffering I cannot imagine, and she practices and lives in her faith and beliefs in a way I can only admire.  Somehow in her journey she has found part of Your Mystery, has reached a point of not understanding, and yet the trust in You is called upon and overrides any slightest hint of doubt, if, indeed, there ever was any.   She doesn’t falter; she does blossom.

I was asked questions, too, about my beliefs.  What it boils down to is that I have more to learn about the Bible, about our history and creeds, but I have a solid grasp on the core of my faith.  I truly believe it’s the core of any faith, that God is about Love — love to God, love to self and others through, for, and as God.  This is practiced and appears as compassion, and it is Good.

Thank you for showing us the way of compassion through the great Teachers, Christ and Muhammed be praised.

Bless our home with radical hospitality.  Bless me with strength and healing.  Bless us all who strive to walk in your way, whichever path we take.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

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Test of Faith

magchurchcrossI went to The Magnetic Church Conference because when I first read about it in our diocesan communication, it struck me as interesting, something important.  Our priests were willing to send me, and I ended up making the solo trip, the alone time not unwelcome.

The conference is about evangelism.  I’m Episcopalian.  The two E-words usually do not go together in casual conversation, not without a shudder, anyway.  The Episcopal Church is about welcoming, but we’re not so much into going out and collecting.  Apparently, we’re not great fishers.

But this is what the conference told us.  Re-think the way we view evangelism.  It’s not some salesman on t.v. with a bad comb-over, promising everything your heart desires if only you choose to live his path . . . and send him money.  For Christianity, our evangelism is in loving one another, “inviting people along the path and sharing the feast.”  It is best exemplified in radical hospitality and compassion.  And we went on to spend many hours talking about how a church might do this.  There were many laughs at our own and at our Church’s expense.

My personal test, however, lies within the principle of “inviting” others along the path.  I have an “all paths lead to God” kind of mentality, spirituality, whatever you want to call it.  What our speaker called “ecumenical mush” with apparent distaste, I don’t so much have a problem with.  Some people need more tradition than others, more frame work to make sense of the great Mystery.  I like the traditions, the liturgy, but I don’t have to have them.  It’s like having a beautifully illustrated book.  One doesn’t have to have the pictures.  Indeed, we don’t have to have a book at all.*  The Mystery exists whether we name it or not.  But it helps us, we mere humans, to work at this Mystery, to share what we have discovered on our way.  Each of us  — whether unchurched, lay, or ordained — has insights to the Truth of the Mystery.  Our lives are enriched in the sharing of these Truths.  Of course, we are human in our own right.  We only have one perspective in any given lifetime, and our understanding is thus limited.

My test?  Keeping my focus on what I feel is True.  I have to keep in mind that my view of God through the colored glass is different from others’, whether they be across the street or on the other side of the world.  My evangelism isn’t so much limited to the Episcopal religion as it is to the experience of the Divine.  I choose the Anglican Church as home for my spirit because it feeds me deeply and encourages my walk in faith, constantly providing nourishment for my journey.  But daily life is the test.  How do I embody Christ’s love to others.  How do I embody God to others?  How do I embody Spirit to others?  Is this not the cross that Christians bear?

Our free will tells us that we choose how we live our lives.  Sometimes, though, I feel more chosen than the chooser.  Truly, I don’t have to take up the cross.  For me, though, that’s like not smiling at a stranger, not comforting the crying child, not loving those in pain.  When you have a gift, it’s best enjoyed when shared.

Perhaps one of my greatest gifts is Love, and I choose to share that with you, no matter what you call it or how you experience it.  You choose whether or not to receive, but that doesn’t change the presence of the Love that is there, patient, kind, and never-ending.

*I’m not saying we don’t have to have the Bible.  I am saying that Christ lived and practiced what we call “Christianity” without a name, without a Bible.

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Religion Revealed

What better day than Ash Wednesday to mention an outward expression of your personal faith?

At music time this morning, I wondered what it was on a woman’s forehead.  Ah, her cross.  We have plans to attend service this evening, as we usually do, where we will receive our mark, our identification as Christians.

But it’s not an easy thing, revealing your belief and interpretation of Spirit.  Just because I identify with Christianity doesn’t mean I’m exactly like all other Christians, or vice versa.  Indeed, I imagine I’m pretty far to the left of the norm.  It takes a special gift to be one who regularly proclaims one’s faith out loud, sharing with others, encouraging others to embody the faith they share.

I admit I have a hard time labeling myself Christian, in light of all the things that have been done and are done in the name of Christianity.  But tonight I’ll accept my cross and with it the commitments I plan to keep for all of Lent (giving up carbonated beverages and alcohol, taking on devoted journaling of meditations, gratitude and dreams).

At the core of all religions, as I see it, is Love, pure Compassion, and with that I can identify.  I can strive to follow Christ’s example.  I can try to be more Christ-like.

Who is your example of Love?  What could you do to embody unconditional Love?  It is quite simple, really. It’s letting go of the ego that’s the hard part.

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