Engage Us – You May Be Surprised

I bet all of us have looked at an elderly person and treated them differently to how we would have treated them if they were 40 years younger.  Often out of perceived kindness, sometimes as a result of our own prejudices and blindness, we have all fell into the same trap.

As regular readers here will know, Pam and I took it in turns to give the homily each week at St. Paul’s Manor.  In the homily below I challenged the residents to consider how they think of homeless people.  Nothing too strong, but something to think about.   Afterwards one lady came up and thanked me for engaging her in the world around her.  She said “Life is real, and I’m not dead yet”.

Words to live by.

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Homily Second Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 5 Year B RCL Track 2

Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

 

I like a glass of wine, but in no way am I a wine expert.   I would like to think that I can tell a good bottle of wine from a bad bottle of wine but I just can’t seem to experience the level of taste that some wine drinkers can.   The other month I was at a wine tasting event and the leader of the tasting poured everyone a glass of wine.  She told us to swirl the glass and then stick our nose deep (in the glass and take in a deep breath, savor the aroma and then, and only then taste a little of the wine to complete the overall sensation of the tasting.  She asked the people in the group “what do you see in the wine?”  “I sense strawberries” one lady called out, then from the other side of the room a gentleman shouted out “yes, yes but I also feel the first damp nights of the fall”.  The woman standing next to me disagreed “no, no it is much more robust than that can you not taste the richness of the cherry throughout the body”.  I was taken aback, I could not sense, smell or even taste any of those descriptions, I just thought it was quite a nice glass of wine.

Our gospel reading today is full of images to be sensed, to be seen, to be thought about, to be considered.   Jesus is at the center of the scene.  A group of his followers are gathered around him, clambering to listen to his teaching and keen to be in his presence.

Then we see the Jewish authorities, the scribes, who are getting uneasy about this man called Jesus who had taught in the synagogue like no one had taught before and who had the power to drive out demons.  He had restored health to Simon’s mother in law and cured the leper.  But he had gone further he had broken the Sabbath and the scribes were none too happy.

If this picture was not busy enough let us consider a third scene.  In the version of the gospel that we just heard, which is from the NRSV translation, we read “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”   So his family went out to restrain Jesus because they had heard that the crowd thought he was mad.   We get a slightly different picture in the King James translation: “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said he is beside himself “ a little bit gentler on both Jesus and his family.   However the New Living Translation claims Jesus’ family believed that he had gone mad “When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him home with them. “He’s out of his mind,” they said.”  The differences in these different translations is all very interesting and has been and continues to be an area studied in great detail by experts but taking a step back, no matter what translation you use there clearly is a group of people in the scene who think that Jesus has gone a little mad or crazy.

So there we have it.  One scene and at least three images.   The image of Jesus, the son of God, the person who people followed, were inspired by, the person who drove those same people to action.    Then we have the scene where we see Jesus as a no good troublemaker, watched with suspicion by the authorities who thought that he was bad.   And then we have a third image of Jesus, an image where people think that Jesus has gone too far, who is a little crazy or a little mad.   Who do you see in the Gospel reading this afternoon?  Is Jesus bad, mad or God?

Directly after these three groups of people are introduced to us Jesus addresses everyone present.  “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Over the years many people have worried that they have committed the eternal sin and therefore can never be forgiven.   I believe that often those very same people, people like you and me, carry around such a heavy load of guilt without truly knowing what the eternal sin really is.

Denying Jesus, the Holy Spirit or God himself is the eternal sin.  When we look back at the Gospels it is easy to see Jesus and easy for us to stand back and say that we claim Jesus as our Lord and not as a mad man or an outlaw.  But just as Jesus responded to the crowd that was gathered around him in the Gospel, he is just as much talking to us, to you and to me today, and he is asking us exactly the same question.   “Who do you think that I am?”

We do have to wait until the second coming to answer that question.  For Jesus and the Holy Spirit are here now amongst us.  The challenge that we face every day is seeing Jesus.

I am sure that we have all seen a person that is homeless as we walk around Banker’s Hill or Hillcrest.   If you look closely you will see that despite having very little a homeless person is more likely to help a person in need than many of us who are much better off.   I believe that is an image of Jesus working through others.   I have to ask myself a tough question.   When I am rushing around the neighborhood and I see a homeless person approaching another person do I see the potential of seeing Jesus?  Or do a see a mad or a bad person?

Maybe the fact that Jesus broke a few rules was not such a bad thing.   Maybe the fact that he did some amazing things that made people think that he was a little mad was not such a bad thing.  Maybe that is a guide for our lives today.   When we see Jesus in the things that we do lets us not deny him.  But having called to him “Jesus you are my savior, transform me to do your work” then our faith calls us to do something with the gospel, it calls us to action, to work for a better world reconciled to the love of Christ.   And in doing so, maybe we will kick up a bit of dust and maybe people will think that we are a little mad.  But we will do it with the blessing of our savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Uncomfortable Party

Last Sunday was the last time that Pam and I were scheduled to lead the Sunday afternoon worship at the Manor.  I am sure that we will be back as we have offered to cover Fr. Jacobsen when he is away.   It was my turn to give the homily.  As I sat and researched and then drafted and edited the text, I realized that my homily style had developed in response to the congregation at the service.  The homily may be shorter than a traditional sermon and may reflect on a single thought from scripture, but that did not mean that it could not challenge, or even make the listeners a little uncomfortable.

(c) York Museums Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) York Museums Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Homily given at St. Paul’s Manor, San Diego, Sunday 12th July 2015

Proper 5 Year B RCL Track 1

Mark 6:14-29

Today’s Gospel reading, the reading that we have just heard is the reading that no one likes to think about.   Let’s be honest, it is a story that is tragic, petty, full of hate, full of revenge and quite gruesome as well.

 He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was a Jew but he was also an officer of the Roman Empire.   His personal life was complex.  He had married his brother’s wife, whilst his brother was still alive.   A definite no-no in those times.   But he was in charge of the region and so he could get away with it.   The only problem was, was this man called John the Baptist, a wild man, always preaching, always leading the way for the one who would come after him.   John the Baptist called Herod out, told him that his marriage was wrong.  Herod couldn’t let him just carry on like that even if he was drawn, maybe because of his Jewish roots, to the message that John the Baptist was preaching.    The solution was to jail John.   That way he could silence him in public but not actually kill him.   Herod was intrigued by John but also frightened by what he stood for.  Herod’s wife Herodias on the other hand just outright hated John the Baptist for the trouble he had caused.

So in the story we come to the party.  And it sounded like it was a great party.  A birthday banquet, full of food and drank and dancing.  And there was his daughter the star of the show, working the dance floor, making everyone happy.   Like any proud father, at a party, probably with a few too many drinks inside of him he makes a grand gesture to his daughter.   Choose whatever you want – even half the kingdom, ask and it’s yours.   The daughter do not know what to say, what to ask for, so she runs to her mother.  Her mother is still full of hate for John the Baptist and so tells her daughter to ask for his life, his head on the plate.

When Herod hears this, he is shocked, he does not want to kill John the Baptist – secretly he quite likes his preaching.  He wants him silenced in public but not killed.   But what can he do to stop it?  He is a high ranking officer of the Roman Empire, who lived by his word.  If he refused his daughters request, his men would lose trust in him.  Whenever he said that he would do something in the future, no one would trust that he would carry through.  What was he to do?  What choice did he have?   Being an officer of the Roman Empire was more important than being true to his Jewish heritage.  He had no choice.   It was off with John the Baptist’s head.

What did this achieve?   Maybe temporary validation of his empire status.   Maybe his wife got some closure to her hatred of John.  I’m not sure about his daughter?, Maybe she got her mother’s approval and favor.  But long lasting achievements?    If anything it only served to heighten awareness of Christ.  John the Baptist was dead, but the one who came after him was growing in his ministry.   Right after today’s gospel we have the story of the feeding of the five thousand.   Jesus sustaining life, as opposed to Herod killing life.   Jesus feeding the many as opposed to Herod entertaining the few.  The contrast could not be greater.

But Herod had no choice, he did what he had to do.   He did what the empire and society expected him to do.   Herod had no choice.   Or did he?  Herod could have heard the request for John the Baptist’s head and said no.  Refused to kill him without just and legal cause.  He could have stood up to his daughter, his wife, his fellow officers and the expectations of those around him and of the society that he was part of.    Standing up to them may have caused him some problems, it may have led to people question his authority but had he stood up to them and refused to issue the death sentence then he would have known that he had the authority of God on his side.  He could have chosen to listen and obey his faith rather than blindly following the traditions and expectations of the society in which he lived in.

And there we have the link to you and to me.  To our life today.    In many ways we are living the party.   The party that does not fully care for the vulnerable members of our society, forcing them to live on the streets.  The party that supports widespread and institutionalized racism in our nation.  The party that makes gun ownership so easy.  The party that leaves our veterans without the support that they need.  The party that values someone’s life upon their material worth.  The party where equality for all is a bad word.

Maybe some of those party descriptions make you a little uncomfortable.  But today our gospel reading is uncomfortable.

So then we are left with the question.  Do we want to be like Herod and go with the flow, save our face, sacrifice our beliefs when we know the truth that is deep in our heart?   Or are we going to be Christ like, disciple like, and stand up for the poor, the vulnerable and those in need of our protection.   Are we going to be Christians who value the worth of every human being?    Are we going to be  Christian’s that are prepared to be unpopular if needed, at odds with society but strong in the knowledge that we have the authority of the God behind us?

I hope so, that is my prayer for myself and for each and every one of us.   May we be known through the love of Christ and not through the admiration of society.

It is not always easy

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In seminary we have been taught that in parish life we will sometimes find ourselves unpopular with parishioners, sometimes accused of being in the wrong and often examined under the spotlight.   We were also taught that we will not always agree with other peoples views but as Episcopalians we are good at holding together different voices in a conversation.   This is of course an important lesson and something that I have discussed with my classmates.  I hoped that this preparation would have equipped me for when it would happen.

Recently it happened, twice in one day.

Pam and I were invited by a resident to meet with him and being eager to interact with as many people as possible we were only too willing to oblige.  The resident was very pleasant but had no problems pointing out where we were going wrong.  We both sat there listening respectfully and remaining present and attentive to the conversation.   Inside my heart sank, for both of us.

Earlier in the day we attended an inter denominational worship service at the Villa.  The pastor, from another denomination, is a dedicated minister filled with love for the residents.  I have often disagreed with his theology but never enough to really feel that I needed to say something.   I felt that we could agree to disagree.   On that particular day however, I felt extremely uncomfortable about not saying something.  The God that he was describing was not a God that I could associate with.   After the service I purposely engaged in conversation with a resident to avoid speaking to the pastor.

So twice in one day, I wanted to speak out and correct someone and twice in one day, I sat back, quietly boiled inside and did not confront the situation.  I wonder, am I a failure?

As I reflect on the meeting with the resident, I can answer with ease.  No, I am not a failure.   The resident had some valid points and it is good to learn from his experience.   The truth can be a bitter pill to swallow.   I also think that he wanted to be heard, and to share his experience with others.   He was not causing problems in the residents community.   A slightly uncomfortable end to the day, but no harm done.

As for the theology of the other minister, I am torn.   I am grappling with holding true that there are other viewpoints to my own and for some people the message would have been very meaningful.   But, I believe in a loving and merciful God and not the God that was preached that morning.   I do think that saying something in front of the residents would have been inappropriate.  But maybe I should have spoken to him afterwards, I will certainly be reflecting on this more.  This blog is a reflection on a journey, not a postcard from the terminus!

I always say that I don’t have the answers but the events of today are making me think – who am I?  Both as an individual and as a future priest.  What are my boundaries?  Where do I draw the line?

I guess that is why they call it theological field education – it is a time for us to learn and to practice.

Helpless but present

A geriatrician holds the hand of an elderly woman with arthritis.

After a few weeks of activities at the Manor, Villa, Memory Care Center and the Health Center Fr. Jacobsen gave us a new list of people to visit.   The list contained names of people receiving hospice care, and therefore in the final stages of their earthly life.  Judy (not real name) was on the list.

Pam and I went up to visit her room late on a Friday night.  We did not know what to expect.  The door was open and a very kind hospice nurse was sitting with her.   We introduced ourselves and asked if we could come in for a few minutes.  The nurse was very glad that we were there.   We walked in and Judy was lying in bed.   She was in her late nineties and had a very small frame but with a lovely head of beautiful white hair.   She was curled up and obviously in a lot of pain.   Pam and I sat with her and I struggled to find words to say.  In so many ways I felt helpless.   She was not able to respond to anything that we asked but we felt that she was aware that we were there.

We asked if we could pray for her, we held her hand and I managed to pray what felt like a clumsy prayer, but one from the heart (note to self: never leave home without a bookmarked BCP).  We then said the Lord’s Prayer and at the end I swear I saw her say “Amen”.

This is where we were meant to be, helpless but present, lacking but adequate.

We said goodbye and left the room.   We both felt that the time of passing was very close and went home subdued.

The next day we returned and whilst still in pain Judy clearly was in a better condition than the night before.   Armed this time with both the BCP and Ministry to the Sick our prayers were more coherent.  On the Sunday she was brighter still and we said one of the daily devotions with her and she responded multiple times.    Judy’s time of passing is close, and we continue to visit her every time that we are at the Villas.  Walking softly, being present, praying that she feels the blanket of Christ’s love as she journey’s home.

Homily Sunday after the shootings in Charleston

Each week Pam and I have been leading the afternoon service at St. Paul’s Manor as part of our theological field placement.   We alternate between officiating and delivering the homily.   This week it was my turn to give the homily.  I had a nice homily planned based on David and Goliath and then on Wednesday the tragic events surrounding the shooting of nine African-American people attending a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina stopped me in my tracks.   I felt uncomfortable with the homily I had written and felt called to talk about the events.   Late Saturday night I sat down and started over, writing from the heart.

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Homily given at St. Paul’s Manor, San Diego, Sunday 21st June 2015

Proper 7 RCL Year B
1 Samuel 17: 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Across the nation today, many pastors, ministers and preachers will be trying to make sense of another mass loss of life that occurred in the week before.    In Charleston, South Carolina this week, nine lives were taken from members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who were attending a bible study.  Emanuel is a historic church that was and is known for its activism and work for making the local community, the church and our nation a better place.  From all that we know, from what the police have reported and from what survivors have told us, this is a hate crime.   An act of hatred, hatred of African-American people.

We have been in this position before.

We have struggled to find the right words too many times.

Bishop Mathes in his letter to the people of the diocese this week wrote

“African-Americans in this country are in poverty because of racism. African-Americans are disproportionately in prison (our modern slavery) because of racism. African-Americans are being killed because of racism. Look at the statistics. Look at the history.“

As Christians we must do something.  We must act to transform the lives of our brothers and sisters who are suffering due to racism.

For those of us who use the Baptismal Covenant as part of our faith we promise “to respect the dignity of every human being,” If we are to mean what we promise than we must act.

Many of us are stricken by fear.  Fear that as individuals we cannot do anything.  Fear that we are a little shepherd boy with no armor sent to battle the massive giant who is protected by a thick and glorious suit of armor.  But that fear should not hold us back.

The lectionary today gives us the story of David and Goliath.  David was indeed that little shepherd boy but he was also the shepherd boy who had faith in God.

But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears;………. The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you!”

We know how the rest of the reading goes.   Goliath baits David, and David uses the tools he had from his everyday life and defeated the giant against everyone’s expectations.   David had faith, faith to overcome his fear.  I’m sure that he was scared, who would not be.  But he had seen how the Lord had protected him before and he had the faith that the Lord his God would protect him in the task ahead.

Compare that to the disciples in our Gospel reading.   They were full of fear, fear that the great windstorm that was crashing waves over and into the boat would sink the ship.   In their fear, they ran to the Lord and woke him up.   The Lord said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He then questioned the disciples “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

How much better that we be like David the Shepherd boy than the disciples?   But if we can’t then let us learn from the disciples, that even in our greatest fear Jesus will not let us down.

So we come back to our need to act.  Our need to do something to break down racism in our country.    I do not have a perfect answer for you.   However we must look at the gun laws in our country.    There have been too many deaths to let things stay as they are.   We must do everything that we can to turn our social justice rhetoric and activism into concrete actions that allow our African-American brothers and sisters to live a life that is equal to all people of this nation.  

How do we do that?  What can we do?  You and me?   We can support all of those things I just said but there is something else that we can do.  Importantly we have the power of forgiveness and love to fight racism and injustice whenever we see it.

You may say to me that showing love and forgiveness to a person who is being racist to whatever extent is extremely hard, if not impossible, it is indeed like sending David out to fight Goliath.    I know it is hard and something that many people will struggle with, but I want to share with you one of the most powerful images from this past week.

At Dylann Roof’s court bond hearing on Friday, relatives of his victims were allowed to address him via a video link.   Nadine Collier, a daughter of Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims, said the following to him at the hearing.

“I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

The story of David and Goliath was retold this week.

We can make a difference if we confront racism whenever we come across it.

We confront, we forgive and we show Christ’s love.

I know that it is hard, especially when we are hurting and the pain caused by someone else is as raw as the pain people are feeling now.  But as Christians we are called to act.

We confront, we forgive and we show Christ’s love.

Today the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reopened and continued the hard work of doing something.  The name Emanuel means “God is with us”.

My prayer for us today is that as brothers and sisters in Christ that we will act to break down racism in our time.  As brothers and sisters in Christ that we will raise up those who have been downtrodden.   As brothers and sisters in Christ that we will act in faith starting with sharing the gospel of love and forgiveness to all, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Amen.

The Admiral

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Back at the Memory Care Center, Pam and I arrived with a list of residents to visit.  The list contained an interesting entry Room 123 Admiral Hyde (not actual room number or name).   As we approach the room the door is open and so we knock and walk in.   An elderly man is lying in bed with the television on in the background although I don’t think that he was really watching it.  “Hello, my name is Richard and Fr. Jacobsen asked if we would stop by to say hello to you, this is Pam” but before I could finish the sentence the elderly man cut in “Are you from Tennessee?”, “No I’m not are you?”, “Born and raised there, where are you from?”, “I’m from the England” I responded.  “Great place, been there many times” the man said.  “My list says that you are an Admiral, was you in the navy?” (aside: sometimes I do ask the most stupid of questions).  “Yes I was, Admiral of the fleet.   Are you from Tennessee?”   As I reflect I remember in all honesty doubting that this man was an Admiral of the US Navy and I was beginning to form an opinion about him.

As the conversation moved on I realized that you could hold a normal conversation for about two minutes and then everything started again with “Are you from Tennessee?”   I started to look around the room for something to talk about, to create a link to.  Sure enough on the far wall was a painting of a very handsome looking sailor in an officer’s uniform.  I asked if it was him, and if it was ok to go across and look.  As I got closer, I realized that this was a painting of a high ranking naval officer and there it was – the inscription underneath.   Admiral James Hyde, USN.   The painting was hanging in the corner of the room and next to it on the wall was a display of medals and pins from every one of the Admiral’s postings.    He had commanded many ships, ran Pearl Harbor and was indeed an Admiral of the United States Navy.

Standing there I felt a mixture of being ashamed and very unworthy of the task that I was meant to be doing.   I realized in that moment that I had fallen into the trap of doubting before believing.

Aging can have savage effects on us.   It transforms us on the outside and sometimes on the inside into something that makes the former self barely recognizable.  As a young upstart I think of how often have I discounted to some degree the experience, sacrifice, love, pain, joy and so much more of someone that I am in pastoral relationship with because of their age or physical condition.  I need to be reminded of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant especially “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” to which I respond “I will with God’s help.” Today I pray for God’s help.

Senior care is a humbling ministry, full of richness.  It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve in this capacity.   Today I made the mistake of making assumptions and being eager to judge.  I pray that I have learnt from this and this will be a lesson never to be forgotten.

Admiral Hyde is a hoot.   He is full of joy.   Sure we keep coming back to Tennessee but in between I am in the presence of a hero.

Creating Moments of Joy

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St. Paul’s Senior Services has a complete range of facilities for seniors from Residential Living (at the Manor) through Assisted Living (at the Villas) to specialized memory care (at the Memory Care Center) and a lot more in between.   My mentor and supervisor for this summer, Fr. Leigh Jacobsen, one of the chaplains at St. Paul’s, recommended a book Creating Moments of Joy by Jolene Brackey as an introduction to working with residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  I did not have a chance to read any of it before my first visit to the memory care center.   Pam and I arrived at the center and saw that our names were on the daily activities list as Reflections with Pam and Richard. Taken a little back by this but eager and willing to do whatever was requested of us we asked the staff what was expected of us.  We were told to go into the dining room which also doubles as the activity room and just sit and talk with any of the residents.  So off we went.

All of the residents at the center have some memory issues but there is a wide range of functionality from resident to resident.   With some residents I struggled to find words when the response back was confusion and at times fear.  With other residents I could hold a conversation to some extent.  One resident, Mary (that is not her real name) seemed to be having a good day and was quite coherent and we chatted about her sons and how she was going out to dinner with them the next day.   Then, all of a sudden she looked out of the window and seemed to be focusing on some buildings across the street.   “Do you see my husband over there?” she asked.   “I don’t I’m afraid where is he meant to be?”  I replied having no idea why her husband would be outside waiting for her.   “He should be on the steps over there with his mates, you know he is always trying to organize a game of something, can’t you see him?”   I couldn’t and I suspected that the husband was not real, maybe a memory but not in the present.   I had no idea how to respond.  It was clear that if I told her the truth she would get upset but it felt wrong to lie to her and play along with her fantasy.

When I got home that night I started to read the book that had been recommended and I couldn’t put it down.   The book is split into small sections, each with little suggestions on activities and responses appropriate for interacting with people experiencing loss of memory function.  A central theme of the book is that we must accept when the memory has gone and meet the person where they are.  In that moment and in that location we try to create a moment of joy.   Not for us, but for them.

In the case of Mary, her memory is now somewhere to a point earlier in her life.   Maybe she remembers looking out of the kitchen window and seeing her husband out with his mates on the street at night.   There is no harm in creating a moment of joy back at a time that for the rest of us was long ago but for Mary was now.

The next time I was at the center, Mary was all dressed up and was indeed waiting for her son to take her out.   As I sat with her (she was ready three hours early and had little concept of time) she again asked me about her husband.   “Yes, I think he is over there, I saw him a few minutes ago heading over to Balboa park with a bunch of guys and a football”  Mary’s eyes lit up in a moment of joy.  “Oh good, now I know he won’t get into too much trouble whilst I go for dinner”.

Both Pam and I have become regular visitors with Mary.   I know that she loves to cook pork chops and she promises me that next time I come she will cook them for me.   The knowledge of the happiness of her planning the meal is a delicious moment of joy.

Let go, let be, and be open to what lays ahead

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I’m back with a series of ten blogs over the next couple of months recording thoughts, musings and reflections as I make my way through my second year of summer theological field placement activities.    This year I am spending time with St. Paul’s Senior Homes and Services.   I have company on the journey as most of the sessions that I do will also be with Sister Pam (you can read her blog here) who has been a schoolmate for the last two years and God willing and people consenting will be ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons in November at the diocesan convention.

Last year, you will recall, my field placement was with Episcopal Community Services (ECS) and specifically with this ACCORD DUI program and also their Downtown Safe Haven transitional housing project.   That experience was so rewarding, fulfilling, humbling and formative that I worry that anything that I do this year will fail to live up to what I had experienced before.

And there we have it.   Lesson number one slaps me in the face even before really starting this year’s placement.

Let go, let be, and be open to what lays ahead. 

What is it about our society that drives us for a need to rank, compare and constantly evaluate?   There is of course a time and a place for all of these activities but there is also a skill in learning to balance the need for structure and evaluation with trust in the Holy Spirit and willingness to try experience new things and even the willingness to fail.

If we don’t give ourselves permission to fail or at least to readjust then we are not being brave enough in living out the gospel that Christ himself calls us to live.

So as I start this year’s activities I have my Learning-Serving Covenant in place, I have learning goals set, and weekly activities laid out.   A schedule of time with residents, leading worship, group reflections and weekly games of bingo.   What will each activity bring?   What will I learn?  What lays ahead that I cannot see?

I have no answer for these questions, but I’m ready to let go, let be and be open to what lays ahead.

I want to see Jesus Are you sure?

A sermon preached on Lent 5 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar

RCL / Lent 5 / Year B

Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16 / Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

(Click here for audio version)

black jesus on the cross

I know that it is not Palm Sunday until next week, but I wanted to share a little story to get you prepped and ready.  A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother. His father returned from church holding a palm branch. The little boy was curious and asked, “Why do you have that palm branch, dad?” “You see, when Jesus came into town, everyone waved Palm Branches to honor him, so we got Palm Branches today.” The little boy replied, “Shucks! The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday that Jesus shows up!”  Have you seen Jesus yet today?

In our Gospel reading today we do indeed jump forward a little to the events of Holy week.   In our Gospel reading today Jesus has already entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  We of course come back to His triumphant entry next week as we celebrate Palm Sunday.  But today we find him in the midst of all of the activity of Jerusalem itself.    Stories about Jesus, this man from the countryside, were spreading wide and far.   A group of Greek’s had heard of this amazing man.   They may have heard about him raising Lazarus from the dead.  For whatever reason they desired to see Jesus.  “Sir we wish to see Jesus” they ask Philip, a disciple with a good Greek name, Philip is not quite sure what to do and so he turns to Andrew and together they approach Jesus.  It was a simple request “there are some guys over there who have heard about you and want to meet you”.  Jesus could have said yes, invited them over and did the biblical equivalent of signing a scroll or allowed them to sketch a selfie with him.  But Jesus knew that his time had almost come.   Now was the time for him to reveal the reality of the week ahead.

Jesus does this of course by telling a parable.  A grain of wheat is no good by itself.  It must fall to the ground and die.  Having been trampled on it finds itself in the ground and over time soaks up water.  And then the miracle of life occurs.   Life emerges from death and something new is created.  Jesus knows that he must die in order for us to gain eternal life.  Jesus’s death on the cross is sufficient for us all.  But the parable is more than just a way of conveying what must happen to Jesus.   It is also aimed at each and every one of us.   For if we are to truly follow Jesus, then we must also be like that grain of wheat and let ourselves die in order to experience new life.

“Those who love their life lose it”.       These words, or words very similar, are repeated six times throughout the gospels.  Once each in Mark and John and twice in each of Matthew and Luke.   Six repeats give us a hint that this is important.

If we truly want to see Jesus then we must seek him out in all places including places that we may not want to go.  And when we find him, we should not always expect a nice happy face, because sometimes, maybe often, we will see him in pain, suffering and sharing in the brokenness of the world.   But there is more, when we have found Jesus and gazed upon his face we must also listen to what he is calling us to do.

The Greek seekers said “Sir we wish to see Jesus”, a wise person in the crowd would have shouted back “are you sure?”  And so my friends when we shout out “we want to see Jesus” we better ask ourselves “are we sure? Are we ready to see his suffering and to share in his death?”

Of course we can see Jesus, here in church.  It is easy to see him in the beauty that is all around us, and there is a lot of beauty here in Del Mar.  As we look a little harder we can see Jesus sitting alongside our homeless guests who come to our helping hands ministry.  But I think that Jesus is calling us to seek him in even more places, especially in places where we may not want to look.   Maybe in our workplaces there is a coworker that really is annoying and nasty to their co-workers.   Can we take the time to look where Jesus may be in a situation like that?   Maybe our kids sometimes tease another kid in our community, for whatever reason – maybe they have red hair, are over-weight or extremely introverted.   What is teasing to some is bullying to others.   Can we take a hard look and she where Jesus is in this situation?  In this season of Lent we reflect upon our own lives.   And I pray that we keep it real and see Jesus in situations where there is pain and suffering.  For that is where he is calling us to find him.

Having found Jesus are we prepared to respond to his message?  Jesus said “Those who love their life lose it”.       What does this mean for us today?  In order to answer that we need to reflect on our own lives and also on the world around us and whenever we see something that separates and pulls us away from God then that is what we need to let die.   We need to let go of those things that keep us from God.   Maybe that means letting go of the bad feeling towards the awkward co-worker and reaching out to them to try and understand what it is that is making them so angry.   Maybe it letting go of pride and talking to our kids when we see them being less than friendly to another.   When we die in these ways we are opening ourselves up to experience new life.

Seeing Jesus is not always pretty.   Jesus calls us to look for him in the places that we not only do not want to go but rarely dare to enter into.   Jesus calls us to look for him not only in the world around us but also in the depths of our own being.  And that can be hard, and it can be scary.  I hope that as we continue to journey through Lent, towards Jerusalem and the cross that we take time out of our lives, out of the churchiness of Holy Week to stop and to look for Jesus, in the world around us and in ourselves.  I pray that we will make Jesus real.

When we find injustice, hatred, greed or anything else that keeps us away from truly being united with God.   I pray that we will work to make a change, no matter how small.  For it is in making that change that we let the old way die.  Just like the grain of wheat must die before it can experience new life, so we must let the old ways of the world and ourselves die in order that we experience new life in Christ.   And that is the Good News.   In Christ we have new life.   And we are certain that for every Good Friday there is an Easter Day.  That following Christ’s crucifixion we experience his resurrection.

I want to see Jesus.  Are you sure? Even when you know what that means and what Jesus is asking of us?  My prayer is that each and every one of us responds “Yes, Sir, I want to see Jesus.”

Amen.

Faith into action

A sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Paul’s Cathedral

RCL / Thanksgiving Day / Year A 
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 / Psalm 65 / 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Luke 17:11-19

There is a video that is very popdownloadular on the internet at the moment, especially on Facebook.  It is actually for a Thai life insurance company and it ends with the words “believe in good”.   The video is all about a young Thai man who goes around doing good deeds for others.   The deeds range from helping an older lady push her street food cart, to sharing some of his meal with a stray dog but most heartwarming is the sight of him giving his spare cash to a mother and daughter who are begging on the street to help pay for the daughters education.   In the first half of the video we see people’s reactions to these good deeds.  Which range from disbelief, to mocking.   A caption then comes onto the screen asking what does this young man get for his actions?  The answer of course is nothing material, no riches, no fame but what he does receive are people’s emotions.  The highlight of the video is seeing the young daughter of the begging mother run to meet her mum on the street in a new school uniform as she squeals with delight at being able to go school, made possible, presumably, by the young man’s donation.  The look on her face is more than enough thanks for the young man.  The message of “believe in good” is clearly aimed at focusing our attention on good deeds rather than on the need to be thanked.   On this Thanksgiving Day I wonder what each of us is giving thanks for.

A good question indeed, and as we read today’s Gospel it seems like a question that Christ himself wants us to think about.   Ten lepers present themselves to Jesus.  Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests and on their journey there they will be cured.   It will come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ promise comes true and the ten lepers are cured on their journey to the priests.   Only one however, a Samaritan, turns back and returns to give thanks to Jesus.  Jesus asks of the nine that didn’t return “Where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he says to the Samaritan “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well”.  A nice story for Thanksgiving Day, a good reminder of for us to give thanks.   But I think that there is much more we can learn from today’s Gospel reading.  I believe that Jesus is calling us to action.

It is very easy for us today to miss some of the pointers that the Gospel writers were trying to show their readers as they wrote the Gospels.   Today’s Gospel starts off with some scene setting.   “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through a region between Samaria and Galilee”.  As we hear that we think of nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary.  But to the early Christians hearing the Gospels for the first time this was something of interest.   They would have been following Jesus on his journey towards Jerusalem but when they looked at a map they would have been scratching their heads.  For the region between Samaria and Galilee was on no direct path that Jesus would have been expected to have taken.  They would have known that he was taking not only a very long detour but also a detour into a region that would bounded by two very different countries.  They would have known that his actions must have been deliberate.

On one side we know that Jesus spent most of his public ministry in Galilee, a region that he was familiar with.  On the other side, Samaria, was a wholly different place.   The Samaritans had the same scriptures and followed the same purity laws as the Galileans but they did not worship in the temple in Jerusalem and therefore were a despised group of people considered unfit for association.

I recently read an article by Brenda Loreman[i] who described the dilemma of Jesus finding himself in this in-between place.  She writes

Yet Jesus, it would seem, has deliberately entered into this place, this area between what his community considers what is right and what is wrong, an area where he is sure to encounter not only his own folk, but those who are unlike him, whom his community considers unclean.

She goes on to describe the region as something like the neutral zone in Star Trek.  A region deliberately put in place to keep two warring factions apart.   A place that you are not really supposed to be in, a place where if you do find yourself in, you better be alert with your torpedo’s armed.

But that is exactly where Jesus went.  He went to the place where many thought he should not go.   In Biblical times he went to the region between Samaria and Galilee.  Where would he go today?  Maybe to Ferguson Missouri, maybe to a funeral service for a victim of Ebola in Liberia, maybe to San Diego’s east village, to one of the many makeshift homeless camps full of human beings but human beings despised by many people.

What did Jesus do in that region between?  He continued his ministry.

What was so special about that group of lepers?   They knew the rules.   They had a terrible disease.  They knew that society forced them to be separated, kept away from the public at large.   But they must have known something of Jesus.   Of his ministry.   Maybe they had heard the stories of his miracles or his healing powers.  For they came towards Jesus, keeping their distance.  They shouted “Master”.  Not teacher or savior but master for they knew that Jesus had authority.   And shouting, shouting would have been hard for a leper for one of the side effects of leprosy is to make your voice horse.   “Master, have mercy on us”.  Jesus did not cure them on the spot.   He sent them off on a journey to the priests.   In order to be cured they had to have faith to go and follow Jesus’ command.    And having done so they were made well.

Likewise, Jesus is calling us to action.   He is calling us to go into that region between.  He is calling us to engage with the very people that we want to avoid.  He is telling us that we need to be practicing faith in action.

What does Luke 17 sound like in today’s world?

On his way from the Gaslamp to La Jolla, Jesus was passing through the area of San Diego known as Barrier Logan.   As he turned onto South twenty-seventh Street he was approached by a gang of ten unemployed youth.   Some were covered in tattoos, many were Latino and one wore a beard that marked him out as a Muslim.   Keeping their distance they shouted out “Master, help us to find a better way, no one will give us a job, our lives are pointless”.   Jesus walked up to the group and sat down with them and listened to their plight.   After some time he said to them “listen, here is what you need to do and laid out a plan for help”.   The group listened intently and even though the advice sounded a little lame they trusted the words of Jesus.   The group members got up and headed for one of the self-help centers that Jesus had suggested.   None of them was ever heard from again, apart from one of them, the Muslim, who came back to look for Jesus to thank him and tell him about his new job as an outreach worker for Father Joes village.

Today is a day for each of us to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.   Today we will do well to model ourselves on the Samaritan, who remembered to return to his Master and give thanks.  But let us not forget that in the midst of giving thanks Jesus Christ is calling each and every one of us to go into that region between, into the place between to do the work of Christ, into putting our faith into action.

[i] http://www.edenucc.com/documents/sam-gal.pdf

Link to the video mentioned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaWA2GbcnJU