Monday, February 22, 2010

1 Lent, Year C, February 21, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Tempting, isn’t it? Preached by The Rev. Peter Courtney

Ah, the temptations of Jesus. Zap! In the time it takes the electrical impulses in our brains to randomly interpret “the temptations of Jesus” we have made our peace with this story. At the speed of light we have inserted our glosses on what the story has on offer.

We discount the impact of this story because the temptations are proffered to Jesus. We know he is not like us; he is some sort of superman. The story itself tells us that he has been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. We sing the song every year to remind us of this superhuman effort on Jesus’ part. We try not to think of our own modest efforts at self-improvement which usually last a day or two. In order to avoid feeling inadequate, we simply promote Jesus to superman. While he may not be faster than a speeding bullet, he is by all accounts at least a religious expert. He is someone who knows how to do things that are outside of our imagination or will. We demote ourselves to a beta model of Joe Six-pack or Jane Lunch pail. We are just poor working slobs who are trying to get the job done. We are simply out of our league when it comes to using religion to be intimate with God.

To be fair to us, one of the reasons this story is in the bible is because people had done the inverse of what we did. They started with God. Far off, unapproachable God, indifferent God, angry God. This flappable God who is also unsoothable just doesn’t get what it is like to try to live in this goofy world we have to struggle with. So the story teller tries to tell us we are not alone. God comes as one who can show us how truly wonderful it is to be in relationship with God who is a revealing God. This God really does get it.

Oops. Now we ratchet ourselves up another notch. We think, once again at the speed of light, well, it may be a wonderful thing to have a God who really experiences life on life’s terms, but after all, Jesus was well armed. He went to Babdis Bible College and he knows how to quote scripture better than a rabbi. In this story at least he quotes it better than the tempter.

To tell the truth, the tempter doesn’t resort to bible quoting until the third round of tempting, although the first two sound a bit like something that might be religious or something.

What we have learned through the ages is that the tempter is as good a bible quoter as we are because the tempter is us. We are the ones who fashion the ingenious, clever, imaginative reasons that convince us that what we want to do is going to be, well, for the best.

In the real world, not the fuzzy one of our imaginations, this is called magical thinking.

A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, "I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it?" The teacher's reply was casual, "Ten years." Impatiently, the student answered, "But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, 10 or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?" The Zen master teacher thought for a moment, "Twenty years."

Yes, there is no magic, even the magic of our imaginations that delude us into thinking the way we did when we were children.

“Mom, please, please, please can I have a kitten? Oh mom, they are so cute. Oh mom everybody has a kitten in the whole world but me. I promise I’ll feed it every day. I’ll clean out its litter box. I’ll even save my allowance and help pay for its food. Please mom, pleeeeeezee!”

God does know how it is with us. God knows that each of us does what we want as much as we possibly can. And God knows that once we have gone and done it, we want to put as positive possible spin on our motives and reasoning as possible. Failing positive spin, we look for someone else to blame.

I love the way Richard Petty taught Kyle to race. "Win the race as slow as you can, son." There is no magic in the race. The only way out is through.

Sam Keen tells us all we need to know about our own internal tempter. He says “at the heart of "illness" is the impotent child who is still crying, "I can't. You do it for me." And it is clear that the moment in therapy when the patient begins to "get well" is when he says, "I am responsible for my feelings, my actions and my style of life. In spite of parents, family, friends or the surrounding culture, I alone can make the decision to outgrow my dis-ease and to establish a way of life that is satisfying. There is no magic. My final dignity is my ability to choose my style of life."

Ah, my style of life. The one I choose; the choices I make; the consequences I reap. The devils I design. God is calling me to know myself well enough to see through this stuff.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ash Wednesday, Year C, February 17, 2010

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
How to do Lent, preached by Fr. Peter Courtney

“I have a complaint,” he said.
“What’s that,” I replied.
“I hate Lent!”
“So do I!” said I in an impulsive burst of brutal honesty.

It has given me pause. I have had to think about why I said that, if I even meant it.

You know, and so do I, that Lent is about prayer, fasting and self-denial. If we have tried to change anything about ourselves, even once, we know about our failures and perversions of prayer, fasting and self-denial.

Prayer turns into going to church every Sunday, well, most every Sunday, for 6 weeks instead of every other week as is our usual custom. The reason we went every other week was because, well, because.

Fasting means replacing one kind of food with another less-appealing kind of food. Then someone told us we confused substitution with fasting. Suddenly we realized that fasting means teetering on the precipice of hypoglycemia for half a day and then being crabby for the rest of it.

Self-denial sounds like a good idea until we are doing some aimless surfing on the net and one click buying is suddenly an option; or gambling; or one kind of escape or another. This is self-denial alright. We deny that the self we have is not the self God wills for us.

It is all so desperate and ultimately so un-prayerful, sooo self indulgent and self-serving – how could anyone could get it right.

Sadly this is true. We cannot get it right. Our principle denial is around our unwillingness to face our own fear of failure. Because we know it won’t work, we give up in advance. Because we set nonsense goals, because we design the very failure we live in terror of, we never get started.

So what to do?

Prayer: Take one line of scripture; one line of a hymn and make it your friend for 6 weeks. One year I gave a serenity retreat weekend just before Lent. I taught the men a six word prayer. “God will help me do it.”

This prayer is short. It was mostly memorable. The coolest part is that God answers prayers like this. God answers them by saying: “No problem, man.” Every day spend a very short time with this new friend. No more than a minute; maybe no more than 30 seconds. When you reduce the time it takes you increase the chances of being successful. Make this new friend a new habit of living in the Word.

Fasting: Once a day forgo a favorite anything and offer it to God in Thanksgiving. It is hard to be resentful or even pious when we are being grateful. Don’t give up a big thing. Just an itty-bitty one. Much easier than cosmic self-sacrifice.

Self-denial: Once a day offer pleasure to another person. This is self-indulgent at one level, but God does not expect us to be pure, only to go in that direction. Spiritual progress, not perfection.

This program will take about 90 seconds a day. If you fail at this, come to confession on Holy Saturday or even better, offer yourself to the clergy for spiritual direction. If 90 seconds a day for prayer, fasting and self-denial is too much, your whole apparatus of denial about your estrangement from your true self and from God is about to coming crashing down. The good news is that Lent is designed to help us reconstruct our self.

Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year C February 14, 2010

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
Mountain Shelters , Preached by Fr. Rev. Peter Courtney

Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain to pray, to converse with God. Instinctively we know this is the right place to go. How many people think “basement” when they think of prayer? Since God is clearly in the sky it makes sense to go up to a high place.

My father was terrified of flying. He was a person who could have made a dozen Steve Martin movies based on the mishaps that befall neurotics who think they are going to fall out of the sky. He knew his fear was irrational. He knew, as we do, that driving to the airport was a lot more dangerous than flying anywhere, anytime.

As an antidote to this neurosis he took flying lessons. He actually told me that if he was going to die, he wanted to be closer to God when it happened. I pointed out to him that the dangerous part of flying wasn’t up where God was, but down on the ground if he landed sooner and harder than he had planned. That was the first time in my life I learned that being right and being lonely are related phenomena.

But things are often inside out. A man got a permit to open the first tavern in a small town. The members of a local church were strongly opposed to the bar, so they began to pray that God would intervene. A few days before the tavern was to open, lightening hit the brand new building, and it burned to the ground.

The people of the church were surprised and pleased -- until they received notice that the would-be tavern owner was suing them. He contended that their prayers were responsible for his building burning down. In a strongly-worded deposition the church denied the charge.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge wryly remarked, "At this point I don't know what my decision will be, but this appears to be the situation: The owner of the tavern believes in the power of prayer, and these church people don't."
--From The Prairie Rambler, June 1993, 6.

Then there is our hero Simon Peter; how could you not love this guy? Once again he is trying to do the right thing and getting it all inside out and backwards.

He gushes, “Jesus, man, wow, it is so way cool that you are here. I mean, like, you know, we are all here. You know, like on this mountain, you know like, you know Moses was on this very spot way back then. He came up to talk with God. It was so, you know, like, cool. And here we are and look, Moses is here too. And Elijah.”

The tradition held that when the Kingdom was to come Moses and Elijah would get in first. The reason was because they, unlike everyone else in history, did not die. Nope, they didn’t. They were assumed into heaven. Kind of like sublimation where a substance changes from a solid to a gas without melting into a liquid first. I learned about this in upstate New York where the snow, the constant snow, never melted. It evaporated; it blew away. So did Moses and Elijah. They just blew away into heaven. Lucky them.

So not only were Moses and Elijah exempt from death, they got to be first in line for the kingdom as well.

To signal this wonderful event, Peter wants to erect prayer booths for each of them and another one for Jesus too. He assumes that Jesus merits the same preferential treatment as his illustrious predecessors Moses and Elijah.

Now, the Bible teaches in a gentle way. Instead a great GONG sound as Peter offers his theory, the writer simply says: “He didn’t know what he was saying!” Very gentle. Not only did he not know what he was saying, he was wrong too.

Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. Unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus is not bigger than life. He gets no special treatment. He has to serve in the army of life just like the rest of us and has to live life in the face of death just like you and I do. The privilege of being human is to know that we are going to die and to live there anyway.

Peter makes another mistake that is not quite as obvious although analogous to the first mistake he makes. He assumes that going up on the mountain to pray means he and they are going to get something. After all Moses went up to pray and got the Word of God in the 10 Commandments. He had seen the movies with Charlton Heston and trusted it.
Moses went up to pray and met God. He met God so intimately that when he came back down from the mountain he had to cover his face because no one could stand to look at him. No one had ever seen God, and it appears that even looking at someone who had had seen God is more than anyone could stand. Even second-hand God is too much to bear.

Jesus never went anywhere to get anything. Stuff happened, but he didn’t go to get anything. Prayer is like that. Prayer, practicing the presence of God, is not about getting anything. Least of all should we assume that prayer will result in ecstasy. Make no mistake, when people, like Jesus, are transfigured by their encounter with God, extraordinary things happen. They learn to live with death for one. No wonder we don’t want to pray. We know from deadly experience that prayer is not ecstatic. When we really encounter God, we find God inside us, the same us that one day will die.

Prayer is not about getting stuff. It is about allowing God to change us. And usually the change doesn’t happen when prayer is officially going on. It happens later as we live out our prayer in life.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Epiphany 5, Year C, Feb. 7, 2010

Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13], Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
People Fishers, Preached by Fr. Peter Courtney

In the film “Catch me if you can” the protagonist, a brilliant improviser and con-man asks the question: “Why do the NY Yankees win all the time.” The usual answer is “They have Mickey Mantle.” The clever fellow’s answer is the key to the con. He says, “They win because all the opponents can see is the pinstripes.” The Yankee’s famous uniform camouflages them so that opponents see the pinstripes and begin to feel and act like losers.

Peter felt like a loser. Everything he did turned to ashes in his mouth. His mouth was his principal work piece and it got him into trouble at every turn. So when Jesus invited him to put out to sea, all he could see was pinstripes. All he could see was an endless parallel repetition of the previous night’s failure to catch anything. In effect he felt like the professional fisherperson who catches nothing on her side of the boat when the brand new tyro is pulling them in like crazy on the other side. “Go figure”, Peter thinks to himself.

But Peter goes and does it anyway. He knows in his heart that this exercise will be fruitless, an exercise in complete futility. But he goes and does it anyway. He goes and does it anyway. Perhaps because he was told to by one who had authority; perhaps because of Jesus by now famous reputation for preaching and healing; or perhaps because there lived in his cold, dark soul a spark which said, “what the heck!”

The great draught of fishes resulted. No wonder Peter says to Jesus: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He is confessing his unfaith. He is admitting that he did the right thing only under duress, not because he thought it would do any good.

A friend of mine invited me to go bone fishing for a week in Belize. I would love to go to Belize. I would love to go with the person who invited me. And truth be told, I would love bone fishing for about 20 minutes whether I caught any or not. Better tell the truth here; I have zero interest in bone or any kind of fishing. I wouldn’t mind going to a warm place with a guy I like for a few days, but having to go fishing is a pretty high price to pay. We learn from Peter the apostle that the most important thing about being a fisher person is to want to fish.

Jesus calls us to be fishers of people. If we believe the fishing business is someone else’s business, then we won’t go to Belize or anywhere else to do it. We won’t do it at home either. Somehow we need to hear Jesus call to each one of us to be fishers of men and women.

How do we do that? I like the ones King Oemig suggests in the Three G’s.

1. Go to church. Church going is like fishing for Peter. A lot of the time it seems fruitless, pointless. The preacher is well, a preacher. The congregation is, well, the congregation. The music is too, well, whatever we don’t like; the pews too hard; the children too loud, too few, too many, whatever.

Jesus told Peter to Go. For some of us going to church is easy. We have found ways to make it work for us; mostly by regular, unceasing practice. For others going to church just doesn’t seem like it is worth the trouble. Jesus’ answer. “Go.”

2. The second G is Give. Give money. Give of your time and talent. This is not a law any more than Going is a law. But it does work to make disciples out of us. It makes us fishers since we are willing to stand up for what we believe and write a check for it too.

God deals only in gifts. God is about uncalculating generosity as the prodigal son and the workers in the vineyard evidence.

I read recently that the God we believe in is the person we will become. If we believe in a vengeful, absent, capricious God, we will become like that God. If our God is generous, selfless, ungrudging, compassionate, open-minded, we will become that kind of person. Choose a generous God and Give!

3. The third G is to give up grudges. Father Layton Zimmer was my rector when I was a teenager. He had retired in Hawaii when I moved there. He gave me some good advice: “Peter, the Islands are small. There is no room for binges, love affairs, or vendettas.”

Vendettas are the logical extension of grudges. The truth is there is no room for them anywhere, especially in churches. So if we have them, give them up. This giving up will make the first two G’s much easier to do!

Notice that when Jesus addresses the crowds who came to hear him, he gets into a boat and pushes far enough off shore so that the crowd cannot mob him, either in misplaced enthusiasm or splenetic self-righteousness. At the very least the water would be deep enough to slow them down so that he could push off further if necessary. But Jesus is not the fisher. He is calling us to do the fishing. He just cleans the fish we catch.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Epiphany 4, Year C, January 31, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,Luke 4:21-30
Preached by Fr. Peter Courtney

Local Boy makes Good

Several years ago I had a flurry of interviews for interim positions. I flew across the country 5 times in 6 weeks. One of the places I visited went all out on the hospitality. They placed a huge assortment of Chamber of Commerce wampum in my room. I was touched by their thoughtfulness.

Did I say I was flying? Did I mention Homeland Security? I left all but one small piece of memorabilia in the trash at the Travelodge. Eventually we both agreed that someone else should be their interim. Their new interim lived in the neighborhood. Institutions like individuals prefer the devil we know to the one we don't. I suspect the other candidate did not get a bag of goodies, nor did she arrive by air.

Last week in visiting with the vestry I got a brief introduction to Harlem, Georgia, where the locals erected a museum to Laurel and Hardy. No one is actually sure that Oliver Hardy was born in Harlem. He could have been born in Covington and one source lists his home town as Milledgeville. Even if he only slept for one night in Harlem, he is a local boy who made good and since there is no other town anxious to put up a museum to him and his partner . . .

We all want to know the local hero. When given a chance we will choose local over foreign every time, sometimes in the face of logic. The implicit assumption is that “one of our own” or “someone from around here” will take it easy on us locals least friends and family get offended or embarrassed. We want to raise the odds on happy outcomes by electing "one of our own" when given a chance.

I have just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The story is about the early days of the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi told through the eyes of three women, one white, two black. They conspire to write a book which looks at life in Jackson through the lives of black women who work as maids. The authors are not carpetbagging Yankees from somewhere else. One of the prophets is an Ole Miss educated white woman. She received her B.A. but not her MRS. The other two voices are from the other side of the social divide.

They write the book anonymously because of significant danger to themselves if anyone finds out who wrote the book. The white woman risks social ostracism and estrangement from her family; the black women, violence and/or death.

The women know that most folks would prefer that this story not be told. No one outside of their group really believes that telling the truth about the social conditions of their time is either possible or even useful. The authors believe that because their witness and their voices are local their stories will carry weight. Wisely they include some extra embarrassing events which will insure that the most venomous villainess in town will be forced deny the book takes place in Jackson for fear that people figure out who she is in the story. There are several layers to this story. Delicious layers at that.

It may be true that “local is better” is a safer way to go in leadership. Except when it isn’t. If we are to take today's gospel story at its face, when local guys go off the rails, the storm that follows can be unprecedented and really scary.

When Jesus first appears in the synagogue and reads from the Prophet Isaiah, people loved him. He read from Torah. He announced that he and God were so close that he could say that God’s promises were coming true in his own life. This was good; this was real good. Well, pretty good. Well, maybe not as good as it seemed at first. After all, that boy has done well. He didn’t come from much. His daddy just had that little framin’ and dry wall business and little Yeshua was born kinda soon after the wedding. Now that I think of it don’t they live in that tacky single-wide in the wrong zip code. . .

If the bloom is off the rose as the locals think about who Jesus really is and who his people are, it is definitely winter kill time when he goes on to remind them that Elijah and Elisha, the greatest prophets in Israel, not only prophesied in favor of Yankees, but were persecuted by their own kin for doing so.

No wonder when God tells Jeremiah he is going to be a prophet he tries to convince God that some other line of work would be much more suitable: “I am only a boy” says Jeremiah, “I don’t know how to speak, never mind make any sense of the Word of God.”

“Before you were in the womb I formed you,” booms God. In other words, I have things for my people to hear and need voices so that they can hear them.

This is tough scriptural going. So where is the Good News? The Good News is that God is at work providing the leadership we need whether we like it or not. Here at St. Augustine’s we are in the midst of challenging times. As the transition period gets shorter there will be voices we would rather not listen to, voices from right in the midst of us, voices we hoped would hush up. After all, local can be good, except when we don't like it.

I invite you to join me in prayer that we will have the courage of Jeremiah, the straight-talking of Jesus and the humility of the characters in The Help. My role as your interim supply priest is to walk with you in these interesting times towards the future God has laid up for you.