Friday, May 28, 2010

Trinity Sunday, Year C, May 30, 2010

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Canticle 13, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
You cannot bear them now, preached by The Rev. Peter Courtney

When people come to us to explore what Christian marriage might be like, we put them through the paces. You know and I know that they are not interested in Christian marriage. They are interested in a “ceremony” which they hope will not be judged too harshly by their friends. But we do it anyway. We have an instrument designed to ferret out a lot about who these folks are and some of their secrets and besetting sins. Remember sins are not bads, sins are the part of us that falls short of the glory God intended for us.

One of the questions asks:
“What concerns you most about entering into a marriage covenant?”
The most common answer is something like: “Do I know enough about myself and my partner to keep this covenant for life?”

Do I know enough? Do I have the wisdom to know if this is what I am supposed to do? The natural follow up to this question is: “How do I get this wisdom?”

Our passage from Proverbs does not help much. It tells us that Wisdom was at God’s right hand from the very beginning, a kind of celestial engineering firm pointing out where the foundations needed to be strengthened, the roof secured, the insulation packed in. It tells us that it was the Wisdom of God which saw that creation was good, and that God could “delight in the human race.”

It is wonderful that we have a God on such good terms with wisdom. All of us want wisdom; or if we don’t really want to be wise we will settle for being right; and if we can’t be right we’ll settle for attractive; and if we can’t be attractive, there is always violence. Brutality trumps wisdom and good looks, at least in the short run.

In Romans, Paul exhorts us with this wonderful series of outcomes:
We know that suffering produces endurance,
5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

For many of us the cost of hope, major dollops of suffering, endurance and at least a smidgen of character, seems awfully high. In effect we want hope on the cheap, without the suffering, without the endurance, without the character.

Wisdom tells us that cheap hope is not worth it.

So I tell persons about to be married, or people entering one vocation or another: you cannot know. Only God really knows. God has known from the beginning. It is for you to suffer, endure, produce character, then you will not hope in vain.

After all hope, like faith, is a gift. It cannot be earned by suffering, endurance, or character. Many of us have discovered that the gift of hope doesn’t have much weight without these costly experiences. So we marry and then we live it out.

I have often wondered about what it was the Jesus would have told us if he thought we could bear it. He says in “16:12 "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” You cannot bear them now.

The Gospels are full of things that Jesus’ hearers could not bear. He had already told them these things, and many people hated him for it, and in the end assassinated him for daring to speak the truth. The people who hated him the most were the ones who had the power to deliver him up.

Sometimes we dare to ask: Why did Jesus have to die? I never know about “have to.” I do know about what happens when you get between power and money. Jesus got in there. He probably knew better but he did it anyway. It is a dangerous and expensive place to be. Much better to act seductively, promise things that don’t matter, dress up the ugly and forget about suffering, endurance and character.

In the end it does not matter what Jesus did not tell us since we have already been told and ignored it. On the other hand if you want to profit from wisdom and receive your gift of hope pressed down and overflowing, here is some homework: Ask the unaskable question.

When have I settled for less than justice?
When have I chosen to endure?
When have I compromised my character?
When did hope seem only like a cheap trick and not the fabulous gift God intended it to be?
There are many things wisdom can tell you. She has told me all kinds of things I did not want to bear and led me to places I did not want to go. There is hope for us all. Wi

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pentecost, Year C, May 23, 2010

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17 [25-27]
Communications, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

We hear people say every day: “It is a communication problem” or “They have a communication problem.” Or “We have a communication problem.”

The ubiquity of this diagnosis has led the casual observer into the notion that everything comes down to communication. This leads to the assumption that what we have is not a communication problem, but a communication famine. The only solution to starvation is more food, more communication. When this misdiagnosis fails to solve problems then we turn up the amplifiers assuming that a communication problem is connected to someone else’s hearing loss. Then we try saying the same stuff only more slowly, sometimes with louder words and usually with a patronizing tone thrown in. This last assumes that all hope is lost and that the final solution is to punish those who don’t get it..

With the exception of patronizing, none of these solutions are bad in and of themselves. Slow, clear, simple speech which is audible is usually a good idea. The real problem is contained in Clarence Darrow’s wonderful question: “Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?” or George Bernard Shaw “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.”

Still the assumption is that some sort of technique or trick of the trade will solve what we perceive to be “communications problems.”

The story of the Tower of Babel is instructive here. Humankind wanted to be, well, God. With typical human ingenuity a bi-partisan committee awarded a contract to their friends and relatives to build a tower to God. The assumption was that if they could get close to God, God would rub off.

When we think about it, it was a pretty good idea. It was a good idea to everybody but God who said to Godself: “We can’t have this sort of thing, I am who I am, and they who they be and there is not going to be a merger anytime soon.” God created the biggest communication problem the world has ever known.

It continues to be a problem. It is not the biggest problem in the world. It is merely a symptom of it.

Couples who are experiencing relationship stress come to the counselor.

QUESTION “What seems to be the problem?”

ANSWER “We have a communications problem.”

After some probing the counselor discovers what everyone else already knew and was too polite to say: These people don’t like each other. They are communicating their mutual antipathy with clarity, precision, high volume and increasingly short Anglo-Saxon words including such global usages as “YOU” and “ALWAYS”. What they have discovered is that they are not the people each one thought the other was. They thought they were alike in values, appearance, social class, family structure and a host of other incidentals. Now they know that is not true. Someone is to blame.

The biblical story suggests that God is to blame because God didn’t like our plan to be God. God’s genius was that instead of simply hurling celestial fission and erasing the project, he used humankind’s strength against itself. God knew that if he knocked the tower down, people would simply vote in a SPLOST and build another one. So he took our greatest gift, the gift of communication, and stirred in a contaminate. Today we call it diversity.

We give lip service to diversity, but we secretly in our hearts wish that everyone were just like us so we could go back to a simple, edenic existence where there was neither pain nor strife; neither quarreling or divorce, but singleness of purpose and mind. In effect, everyone would be just alike with a few cosmetic variations to avoid boredom.

In our time we have convinced ourselves that the tower was unnecessary. We are god. God is the pious appendage we graft on our rhetoric to beguile the rubes who still think God matters.

Our fore parents sought God. We have God under control and no longer seek God. The only kind of God acceptable is one who looks, feels, sounds like us. We pretend we are all alike when deep down inside we know it ain’t so.

God’s gift to humankind was not only the invitation to strive forever to be with God, but to live with the consequences of that striving by being different from one another.

This is not a problem. It is a fact. We can decide it is a gift and rejoice in it. Or we can decide it is a curse on a fallen creation and subvert it by walling ourselves into various kinds of ghettos to keep the Other out. It is the emotional, spiritual, intellectual enclosures which are as damaging to our project as any shortage or failure in communication.

The gift after all is the hint that the incredible variety we experience on earth is already replicated, in God, in heaven. How do we know? We know because God changed her mind about keeping us out and sent her Spirit to communicate with us the gracious invitation and the empowering message that God is present in and through all of creation, even up to and including each one of us.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Easter 7, Year C, May 16, 2010

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26
Jesus and Monty Python, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

The scene we are treated to on Ascension Day is straight out of Monty Python. You know the Monty Python shtick. Cartoon figures sprout what appear to be actual human heads and then body parts fly off in every direction. Since there is no blood to accompany these grisly scenes we can tell they are satirical looks at how we believe stuff.

So let’s allow Monty Python play Jesus’ ascension for us. As a group of his friends are standing around him, Jesus begins to levitate. He does this in slo-mo, because Jesus does not rise suddenly. He levitates slowly like a Houdini trick. We know it happened in slow motion because there was enough time for two court jester types (angels in the biblical story) who ran credits as Jesus was ascending to the Father.

“Why are you standing there, looking up into heaven? Don’t you know that this Jesus whom you saw levitate is going to de-levitate. You know how it is: What goes up must come down!” Then Jesus is received into the cloud.

I know it happened like this because we did it in church one year on Ascension Day. Our clown ministry suspended a large puffy cloud from the ceiling of the church. Hanging out of the cloud were two size 18 basketball shoes. We were in church for an hour and a half and I kept waiting for those shoes to complete the trick and disappear into the cloud. I wanted to see Jesus received out of our sight. We were not conjuring a Monty Python trick, we were just helping our imaginations deal with the wonder of God.

We live in a world in which Monty Python is watched by millions as if it were real life, not satire. People just take it in stride. They interpret what they see and hear and make their accommodations with it. When these same people are offered the wonderful legend of Jesus returning to his heavenly father after the resurrection from the dead, you would think someone had canceled Ground Hog day. “Preposterous” they say, how can anyone believe this religious nonsense.”

These are the same folks who actually believe the outcomes of sports events actually matter. They buy billions of dollars worth of memorabilia in hats and bats and tee shirts. They will shave their team’s name in their chest hair.

Human beings, the ones who think about it at all, generally think we are basically stuck here. We are born, we suffer, we have some fun, and then we croak and go underground. Stuck here. No heaven, no hell, just life. “Show biz” as my father used to call it. Truth be told many of us religious people believe pretty much believe the same thing.

In raising Jesus from the Dead, God establishes her credentials. “I am lord of life and death. You can do whatever you want, but I am the one who has it all. You may seem stuck; I am not. If you are interested, my will is that you get unstuck. I brought my beloved Son back to me, so that you could come to me as well; you can come to be with me. And you don’t have to wait until you are dead to do it. You are free to ascend with me now, any time you like. For I am with you always, even to the end.” In short, Jesus’ ascension into heaven holds out a larger vision than our secular cynicism, a vision that is less bounded, less stuck, airier, freer.

Jesus said “All of you are mine,” and he is right. God keeps saying to us: “You are mine. You don’t have to come to me. You are free to stay stuck.” But much like Monty Python, life in the kingdom is a bit unglued.

“So let go. Come on up” says the God who brought Jesus back to life and back to live with God forever.

Those who prefer to be stuck will do as the witnesses did in the first century. They stand around gazing up into heaven. The angels will ask them “why?”

Those who confuse Monty Python with reality will buy season tickets to some game and bet their lives on the outcomes, all the while telling religious people that they are superstitious.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Easter 6, Year C, May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5
Advocate, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”
I don’t know about any of you, but my experience with advocates is very limited. Now this may be a very good thing. Advocates are usually required by folks who are under some kind of duress; they are being accused of something; they need something that only someone else can help them procure; they are afflicted with that terrible disease of being unknown as in “you are not from around here are you.” Only a very persuasive advocate can overcome the natural resistance of distrusting the stranger.
Most of us have heard of a Devil’s Advocate. This is a person appointed by the bishop of Rome to attack the credentials of people who have been nominated for sainthood. The devil’s advocate tries to prove that the nominee is unworthy. For instance the pope appointed the well-known atheist to be the devil’s advocate in the process to canonize Mother Theresa!
When I moved to Honolulu in 1996 I found out that it was generally expected that the dean of the cathedral which was my new job would be a member of the Pacific Club. This lovely institution just two blocks from Queen Emma Square was and is the meeting place for all of the Honolulu business and social community.
I duly filled out the application form and wrote a generous check for the reduced rate initiation fee which the club reserved for members of the clergy. On the one hand I was on my own. I was expected to pay the fees although any professional use of the club’s dining room would be reimbursed. On the other hand I had to produce three advocates who would vouch for my moral and social quality. It wouldn’t do to have a member who couldn’t use a fork, or worse couldn’t pay his bar tab
The lovely man who volunteered to be my sponsor also got two more volunteers to advocate for me. None of them knew me from Adam. I got in. I used the club a lot to the delight of the board of governors who needed the money. Now that I think of it I got into the Harbor Club in Norfolk, Virginia under the same roomy umbrella.
I appreciated having an advocate. The memory of being invisibly supported by people I didn’t even know is comforting in an odd way.
I’m an American male. I like to think that people would take my sincerity and competence for granted and that an advocate would be unnecesssary. But it just doesn’t work that way. I have needed advocates more often than I would like to admit and happily they have been in good supply.
Jesus promises the church that it will receive an advocate from God. The reason the church needs an advocate is because of Jesus’ confusing statements, at one minute saying he will not leave them alone and in the next saying he must go to the father.
All of us have had those confusing statements made to us by people who say they are staying yet clearly have one foot out the door. It really seems like cold comfort for Jesus to take credit for telling the disciples in advance that he is out of there. He is still leaving and they are understandably bereft.
This is a great text for any congregation in transition to dwell on. Clergy of all sorts come and go. Some we are sorry about, others less so. But nonetheless, it is easy to feel as if the rats are leaving the ship. One of the reasons we have interim clergy is so that these lonesome times can have a measure of continuity instead of a different face at the altar and in the pulpit each week. But we interims are a lot like Jesus. We tell you the same thing he did. I will stay and I will leave. In my case I promise to be with you until the Vestry calls a new rector for you to deal with. I hope that I represent the spirit of God well in assuring you of your adequacy for the work the spirit gives you to do. When a new advocate comes I will be gone, very likely forever. For some this will be a relief, for others not so much. But it doesn’t matter in the long run. Our call is to live in the promises of God that she has sent an advocate and with that spirit we will do what needs to be done.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Easter 5, Year C, May 2, 2010

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
Love one Another, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

In the movie “The Hitman” children are trained from early childhood to be completely obedient, self-contained and ruthlessly efficient killers. They all wear black suits and black ties, a little bit like Mormon missionaries who are indoctrinated the same way except for the killing skills. On the back of each assassin’s shaved head is a permanent bar code. These men are a lot like professional athletes. They are put into inventory and tracked. When they wear out they are terminated. They are replaceable commodities just short of robot.

These assassins move about all over the world with their bar codes showing and no one ever notices. If I had a bar code on the back of my skull, I think someone would stare at it least once. One of you would probably ask me what my sell-by date was.

There are a number of web sites which prove that all bar codes are the mark of the beast because they all have the code for number 666 in them. For folks intent on inventing conspiracies there is an intricate interpretation which might make it appear that bar codes contain the number 666, but they simply do not. If you see someone who looks like me with a bar code on the back of his head, you would be smart to run though.

There are lots of things to be afraid of these days. We went to a church once where the rector assured us that he and the other priest used sanitizer before administering communion. He went on an on about it. Suddenly something that had never occurred to me to worry about was being served up in scary relief. I didn’t see any bar codes, but I did begin to wonder.

I saw a diocesan website with a major tab on the landing page subtly entitled PANDEMIC!!! They might just as well have put 666 up in lights. What in heavens name is the gospel furthering purpose in jacking up the terror alerts?

This is all by way of agreeing that barcodes and websites and yes terror alerts are now an integral part of our daily experience. They are very useful tools. In the hands of demagogues and most governments they are an insidious way of exerting mind control. I remember a satiric film about politics in which the political advisor says to the candidate: “You just keep smiling and we’ll take care of scaring the crap out of them”

Aside from ravings of paranoiacs about bar codes, it is simply true that we are known, deeply known by the electronic surveillance and record keeping capacities of computers.

It is also true that we are known by one larger than a computer. That one is God. Here the Good News from the First Letter of John. “{10} In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. {11} Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. {12} No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

God knows more about us than our bar code could ever tell. This God chose us. The God who chose us loves us. We did not choose God, God chose us. God continues to choose us. John knew this so well that he said “God’s love is perfected in us.” He means, God’s love is being made perfect. God is not done choosing us, nor is God’s love all done in us.

God can love us because as I Corinthians would have it; now we are truly known, not through a glass darkly, and not through the partial screen of a bar code, but known only as a creator could know.

When the Gospel calls us to love one another, it does not call us to push a button and switch on nice. It calls us to a lot more than that.

Victor Frankl put it this way:
"The more weakly one stands on the ground of belief the more he clings with both hands to the dogma which separates it from other beliefs; on the other hand, the more firmly one stands on the ground of his faith, the more he has both hands free to reach out to those who cannot share that belief."

So Love has been perfected in us. Why? So that fear won’t run us, even the kind of fear that our electronically controlled universe engenders in us.

For how long is love perfected in us? What does it matter? Our struggle with fear never ends. I heard someone say recently that Jesus was not afraid. What nonsense. Of course he was afraid.. He was deleted, cancelled, removed from inventory altogether. That is something worth being afraid of.

What does perfected love look like? It looks like human beings working with their God to be fully human. To stand and say with the rogue assassin: “I am not a piece of your inventory. I am me, a child of God who has been loved so much that I can only love in return.”