Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday in Holy Week, Year C, Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 71:1-14, 1Corinthians 1:18-31, John 12:20-36
A homily preached by Rev. John Warner

As I walk around my yard, I can tell spring has arrived. The daffodils are topped with golden crowns. The camellia bushes display contrasting colors of green and red. Pink blossoms can clearly be seen on the leafless Japanese magnolia tree. Marsha receives much of the credit for this palette of colors that surround our home. Her efforts earlier in the year have paid off. Seeds were planted, bulbs separated and flowerless plants lovingly repotted. All this effort is done with the hope for a rainbow of colors. Although Marsha’s preparations do contribute to the result, God is ultimately responsible for the growth.
Today Jesus tells a parable concerning a wheat seed to those present, both Greeks and Jews. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24). He uses this parable to teach them three things:
1. He was saying that he must die.
2. God is in control.
3. His death has purpose.
Jesus tells all that he must die for God’s glory. Using the image of a single grain of wheat, he tells all present that he must die. A seed that remains safely and securely in a cupboard is ineffective. It is only when that seed is buried in the cold ground that it has the potential to bear fruit.
Jesus willingly places his fate in God’s hands. God is in control of future events. His death is in accordance with God’s intentions and is offered up for God’s glory. God’s purpose will be realized.
Jesus’ death was not meaningless; it had purpose. His death was not just for the sins of the few but the sins of the entire world. His death was not just for the Jews, it included the Gentiles, too. Jesus died for you. Jesus died for me.
Life comes from death. What parts of our life need to die? Only by the death of our personal desires and self-centeredness, do we truly become the servants of God. Historically, the world would have been a dismal place if men and women had lived only for their personal safety and selfish gain. The world owes everything to those who became servants of God and to their fellow man and woman. A life with concern for only the self might be tempting, but it isn’t a life worth living.
What in your life needs to receive a burial? What needs to die to reap a grand harvest? Amen.

Monday in Holy Week, Year C, Monday, March 29, 2010

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 36:5-11, Hebrews 9:11-15, John 12:1-11
A Homily preached by Rev. John Warner

“Dead man walking, dead man walking here!” “Dead Man Walking” is the title of a book by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun which was adapted into a movie starring Susan Sarandan and Sean Penn. The title of the book is derived from the traditional call shouted by a prison guard as the condemned prisoner is led from Death Row to his execution. “Dead man walking, dead man walking here!” After yesterday’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus now finds himself a dead man walking—living out his final week on Earth.
Today Jesus is at the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary for dinner. We do not know how many of Jesus’ disciples were with him, but we do know that Judas was a guest. While the men were seated at the table and Martha was serving her guests, Mary takes a pound of nard, an amount worth three hundred denarii, a value equivalent to one year’s wages for the average worker in that time, and anoints Jesus’ feet with it.
Judas is the first to question the sanity of using this fragrant and expensive perfume for Jesus’ feet and not sold to benefit a great number of the poor. After all, this excessive luxury for one man would appear contrary to the ethos of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone. “She brought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Jesus’ response indicates that Mary has her priorities straight. Mary answers the calling from God at that moment by responding to Jesus in preparation for his death. Judas has missed the point. It isn’t the nard. The point is that Mary is giving it to Jesus. It isn’t what or how much, it is how it is given. Mary’s physical action of love demonstrates what is truly important in her life: to give of her best from her heart in selfless giving to her Lord. As we approach the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, ask yourself, “Am I pouring myself wholeheartedly without hesitation to God? In which ways am I holding back my gifts to His service? Like Judas, what excuses do I give to explain what I believe I should be doing?
Mary’s extravagant action today challenges us on several levels. How does her action challenge you?

5 Lent, Year C, Sunday, March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Codes, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

I will never forget those 90 minutes back in 1954. My parents had taken us to see the movie version of “Brigadoon” with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. The stage show by Lerner and Lowe had been changed from a singing event to a dance venue to accommodate the gifts of Kelly and Charisse. I inherited from my dad the love of dance in any form. Then as now I thought Cyd Charisse is an enchanting name!

Even at age 11 the movie charmed me, including the love parts. I remember something else much more vividly. There was a woman in back of us who had bathed in cheap perfume. She reeked of it. It our whole row was drenched in a noxious cloud of stink.. Every olfactory nerve in my body was in agony. I spent the entire time with my finger clamped over my nose and breathing through my mouth. I discovered that cheap scent has a bad taste too. My sense of smell is inherited from my dad too who suffered the same agonies as I did.

Scripture says that the perfume Mary of Bethany brought to anoint Jesus’ feet with “filled the house”. This does not mean people were reaching for gas masks. Here it means that everybody and their cousin knew that something extraordinary was happening. They were not in the Media, Pennsylvania movie theatre suffering; they were being exposed to a whiff of heaven.

There has always been a temptation to assume that the perfume was noxious since the church officially confused Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala who is a different person with a different history.

The principle protagonist in this story is not the Chanel #5. No, the principle is the elaborate code that Judas uses to disguise his perfidy and larcenous spirit.

“What kind of waste is this? The teacher doesn’t need fancy scent, especially something as expensive as this! This is poor stewardship, why it could have been sold for $150 an ounce and the money given to the poor!”

This is code. It is the kind of code we all use when someone uses power or money or both in ways we don’t agree with. This kind of rhetorical code is useful because at one level it really works.

I do it myself. One day a big old elephantine, blinding-white Hummer pulled up in front of my office to let a child off at the Day School. The thing took up half the block. The windows were blacked out so I could not see the driver. I said with great disdain: “why we could sell that thing and give free tuition to every child in the school!”

This was code for “if I had that kind of dough, I would buy a Porsche.”

Judas’ remark was code for “If they had sold that stuff there would be more for me to steal!”

As usual, Jesus does not fall for the codes. He says, “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial.” Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus points to the final anointing that will take place very shortly. After Jesus has been betrayed by all the codes in the world including his own religion he will be anointed in death.

Then Jesus says one of his more widely quoted remarks: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

He is saying to us all: “Don’t be fooled by pious rhetoric. Cheap talk is like cheap scent, but it is still like the stuff you smell in dance movies in 1954. The precious thing you have is me, Jesus. You will not always have me as you do now.”

This story was written by the Church. The church’s experience was that it could still smell the rich fragrance of Jesus’ anointing by Mary of Bethany. It could also still smell the scent of his burial anointing as well. It could smell these things because it also knew that Jesus had risen from the dead. He had overcome the traps and lies that put him to death. He had risen above the codes and cheap bad smells. He is now the Christ of the Church which enjoys the sight and smell of the Risen and Ascended Christ. He is doesn’t fall for rhetoric or even pious liberal slogans designed to distract us from the urgency of telling the truth.

I have wondered more than once what Jesus would have said about the lady in the Media, Pennsylvania theatre. One possibility is: “You have clueless and inconsiderate people all the time, but you will not always have me as you do now.”

56 years is a long time to remember a bad smell. Rejoice with me and Mary of Bethany that the odor of sanctity of our Risen Lord trumps them all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

4 Lent, Year C, Sunday, March 14, 2020

Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Home Free, Preached by Fr. Peter Courtney

I knew I had a chance to beat my Grandfather in 10-pin bowling. It was not a sure thing, but I had a chance. He was too good at too many things. Even at age of 78 with tri-focal glasses he could beat me in tennis. So victory would be so sweet over this fabulous man who was so good at everything--Except driving. Here there was no contest. I was the hands-down winner at driving.

This particular day I think my bowling was worse than usual. He may have won. On the way home I drove more aggressively than usual for a teen-aged boy. After a few tire squeals around the corners Gramps said: “You know it isn’t very comfortable to ride in the car when you drive like that. If you won’t slow down around the corners, I’ll have to drive.” Wow, first bowling, now driving. I was shocked, devastated, and enraged. I pulled over to the side of the road, set the emergency brake and got out of the car. “If you don’t like my driving, you can drive and I’ll walk.”

He drove off, slowly. He knew it was at least 5 miles home. And it was July. It was hot. It was very hot. . . really hot. I trudged along the road in self-righteous indignation for quite a while. The dust completely covered my shoes; my face got all streaky with sweat and dust. My self-righteousness dulled in inverse proportion to the swelling of my feet. I pondered what had made my absolutely god-like grandfather speak so sharply to me. He had never, in my whole life, done that before. My driving couldn't have been that bad could it? I tried to dismiss him as an old fool. Even that didn’t work. I just knew he wasn’t an old fool. He was never wrong, about anything, ever.

Just as I was beginning to think this martyrdom was not a good idea at all, I realized there was a car in back of me. It was Gramps. I had begun to kinda sorta watch for him. Somehow he got around in back of me without me seeing him. He couldn’t have gone around the block. This was in the country where the blocks were five miles on a side.He asked me if I wanted I ride. He didn’t say much of anything the rest of the way home. He didn’t have to.

I knew I was home free. I deserved to walk. I certainly didn’t deserve to be taken bowling and to the driving range and out to lunch in Boston. I didn’t deserve a grandfather like Gramps who knew everything and who always had time and compassion for a not very grown-up college kid. I was home free.

I was an Israelite sitting around on one of the twelve stones in Gilgal telling the story about how we got home free, not once, but twice: once when God led them through the deep waters to escape from the Egyptians, twice when God held back the water of Jordan as they crossed into the Promised Land. Just like them we are home free. We didn’t earn the Promised Land. It was a gift, a promise, a covenant. We erred and strayed like lost sheep. Their driving was worse than mine, and yet God got them home free.

God is the prodigal father to us profligate sons and daughters. He is the prodigal father who wastes his love on the son who went off on his Harley Davidson after taking his inheritance off the old man. In Hebrew culture this was as good as saying: “Why don’t you hurry up and die and be of some use to me, old man.”

He pocketed the cash and wasted it on the Strip. When he came to his senses, he used his righteous imagination to think up a likely story to give the old man about how things hadn’t gone too well in Vegas, about how his dad had been right all along yadda, yadda. Before he can get the very first word of this song and dance out of his mouth his father picks up him off the sidewalk wraps his arms around him and gives him the bear hug of his life. He was home free. Later on the prodigal father points out to his sulking older son that he too is not only home free, he was always home free. Why? Because. That’s why. Just because.

These are joyful stories. They make us feel good. They teach us what love is and perhaps more important what God’s love is like.

And we don’t believe it.

We read the newspapers. There we read of corruption and misery so great it makes one want to pull the door closed and lock the world out forever. There cannot be forgiveness in world like ours, even with us in it.

Truth be told hell is full of forgiven sinners, people who are home free. Heaven is full of forgiven sinners to, people who are home free too. The difference is the people in heaven know it. Unlike those in hell they know they are home free in the incomparable goodness of God. We are all home free.

Hell, of course, is a fairly appealing address despite artistic representations to the contrary. Hell is an easy address to find. No GPS required, only a good dose of contempt and condemnation which are so easy to acquire and easier to hold onto with the tenacious tongs of self-righteousness.

St. Paul said it all: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We all are uncondemned, no matter who attacks us, who maligns us, who talks stink about us. We are all home free. We are all the prodigal son, the elder brother, Israel in exile. We are home free. No one is going to tag us “out” as we slide home. We are home free. All of us: the perverted and the righteous; the straight and gay; the humorous and the serious; the toxic and the healed, we are all home free.

So, when you get home and your resident skeptic asks you: “What did the man say in church today.” Tell them the man said: “Gospel means ‘Home Free.’”

Monday, March 8, 2010

3 Lent, Year, C, Sunday, March 7, 2010

Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
I am who I am, preached by The Rev. Peter Courtney

Robin Williams plays Popeye the Sailor man in the movie version of the comic book story. Popeye sings a song which goes: “I yam what I yam what I yam what I yam, I’m Popeye the Sailor man.” Popeye is generous, vigorous and firm in his opinions. He knows who he is. This is a good thing. He is Popeye the Sailor man.

When Moses asks the God of his ancestors for his name, Yahweh answers: "I AM Who I AM.” He goes on to say: “Tell the people ‘I AM’ sent you to them.”

One can almost hear the dedicated skeptic writing the comedy line right now:
Question: “What do Yahweh and Popeye have in common.”
Answer: They are both very strong and they are both fictitious.

There is no question that Yahweh is establishing his credentials with Moses. The subtext is that he is strong, the one who has always been and who was in the beginning. More important than being strong, Yahweh sets out his family tree by saying he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “I am” is the God who accompanied the People of Israel from the very beginning; long before anyone can remember except through the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel.

Yahweh’s name "I AM Who I AM” is intriguing. We know that it can mean “I will be who I will be.” Yahweh is telling us that he is the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) God of Israel and will continue to be so into the future. Yahweh also refers to Godself in the third person: “Yahweh is the one who makes all things.” This is not unlike Popeye’s conviction that spinach makes him able to fin-ich what he starts.

When Yahweh tells Moses that he and the people of Israel will go into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites it is hard to imagine that all these folks will be glad to see them.

Popeye is all about bluster, noise and violence. He can vanquish dastardly villains after a huge fight and a re-supply of spinach. Curiously he is powerless in relation to his girl friend Olive Oyl who treats him like dirt and slaps him around with impunity. We read comic strips to see big tough men diminished by more powerful women. Oddly, there is some evidence for the same kind of behavior with David and Bathsheba, Sampson and Delilah and several others. Popeye is not fictitious; he is a real cartoon character whom all of you have met one way or another.

Yahweh on the other hand is not a cartoon character. In Eastern Orthodoxy the story of Moses and the burning bush is called the Unburnt Bush. In order to get Moses’ attention God appears in a bush fire which does not succumb to the flames. Even people who have no idea about anything in the Bible know what a “burning bush experience” is. Burning bush experiences are numinous, transcendent, unexplainable phenomena which really happen to us. Last week we said that when God calls, it is not always with son et lumiere. But when God does do sound and light we tend to discount the experiences because these experiences are outside of our normal experience. We play safe with them and discount them as unreal.

Just because a burning bush is a stunt does not mean it is not real. In the Bible God appears in places where one takes off shoes because our feet are on holy ground. I served a parish which called their coffee hour Holy Grounds since it is there where we meet the holy in our neighbor.

It is terrifying to think we would encounter the really real, the utterly holy, the one who tells us to take off our shoes because we are on holy ground. It is normal to be terrified. Who wouldn’t be both fascinated and scared by these larger than life experiences?

Two caveats. It is important to remain open to the power and presence of God. Our spiritual journey is best taken when we look at our lives and notice that God was there all along whether there is a lot of noise or not.

The second caveat is that burning bushes are not the only way that God gets our attention. It is one way. People do have burning bush experiences. When we do, it is important to take off our shoes rather than discount the experience.

Remember that God can speak softly too as she did to Elijah in a still small voice. Our job is to pay attention. Our God is not like Popeye, a comic blusterer. God is the steady regular attender to us and the lives we live. If we insist that God can only be in unburnt bushes we are very likely to miss the still small voice of God.

Monday, March 1, 2010

2 Lent, February 28, 2010

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Vocation, Preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

“How did you know that you wanted to be a doctor, a college professor, a social worker, a politician, a priest? How did you know?”

People ask these questions from all sorts of motives. Sometimes they are curious as to why anyone would want to do what we do. How can you be a parent in these days? How can you spend all that time in the laboratory? How can you stand dealing with all those people? How do you keep the facts straight? How did you get to where you are? I could never do that!

True, we couldn’t, but they did. And they did it the same way we did. They felt called to it. Most of us don’t put it that way. We don’t describe our vocations as callings, yet vocation simply means calling. We like to think our vocations are choices we make from a smorgasbord laid out before us. In real life we simply go with the flow provided by parents, peers, mentors and a long series of chance events.

Abram is such a one. “God came to Abram in a vision.” Abram actually saw and heard God. He didn’t have a vocational counselor; he didn’t go to a job fair. He was visited by a celestial headhunter. God starts out: "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." I will take care of you, don’t be afraid of the dark and the unknown.”

Abram only cared about one thing. He wanted a big family with at least one son to whom he could pass it all on. God told him he would be a father alright, he would be the father of his country. Didn’t God know that he would need a really big family for that? All the children would have to be legitimate children too. So Abram said, "O GOD, I have no real children. My only heir is some trash from up North. . . . what will you give me?”

God said, "No worries. It only looks like that to you. You will have a true son of the South to carry on the family. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. That is how many children of children you will have. I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess. Trust me!"

Abram was impressed, skeptical, but still afraid. So God gave him some religious things to do to distract him from his fear. He cut up some animals and smoked ‘em. Abram did as he was told. He may have expected all the lights would come on; there would be lightening in the sky and the clouds would disperse. He was wrong. There was no son et lumiere. Instead the dark took over. It was as dark as the night Debby and I were on the Maine coast in a hurricane a couple of years ago. It was so dark it was darker outside than inside when the electricity went off. At least we had the battery light on the thermostat. That’s how dark it was for Abram.

That is how it is when God calls us. It is dark and we are alone. Then God gives us things to do, some of them designed to distract us from our fear, and then it gets darker still.

And in the dark God says: “I gave this for you to do. I will be with you in it, even in the dark. I will take you by the hand and lead you to the next place which will not be dark, but full of my light and life.

This why Philippians says to us: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” We belong to God and God walks with us in the dark, all the way to the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

When people treat us: as strangers and aliens, when they say “We don’t know you.” When they say “Who are you and who are your people?” God says to us: “You are my beloved children. I called you from the beginning of the world to be mine, to be with me in my world. Come in out of the dark. Come in out of your fear. Respond to my call to be mine and I will be yours and together we will light the world.