Saturday, June 25, 2011

Put on Shoes...

Put on Shoes…
Matthew 10:24-39/June 26, 2011

As I write this sermon, I am sitting on an American Airlines Boeing 737 flying from Miami to Las Vegas. Earlier this morning, I left Port au Prince, Haiti for Miami. Soon I will be home in my own bed in Pahrump, Nevada. This trip is the exact reverse of a trip that I made only 72 hours earlier, leaving my home in Pahrump for Las Vegas; and then flying from Las Vegas to Miami; and from Miami to Port au Prince.
How many miles –around 9,000. How expensive – very. Why – to be a disciple of Christ by going to provide support and caring to Haitians who continue to struggle in the aftermath of an unbelievably devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010 that was soon followed by a force 2 hurricane; a massive cholera epidemic; and a period of violent political unrest during which it was frequently too dangerous to venture into the streets without fear of being kidnapped or shot.
I first went to Haiti in 1999. At that time, the extreme poverty throughout the country was grim, but the people’s eyes were bright; they had smiles on their faces; they laughed and sang and danced continually; they were filled with the Spirit – you could feel it everywhere you went. The Spirit brought love; hope; patience; compassion; and joy to the people of Haiti, despite their poverty and political turmoil. Despite massive challenges, life was filled with the gifts of the Spirit.
In 1999, I left Haiti with a song in my heart, inspired by the many, many joyful, creative, and deeply spiritual people that I had encountered; spoken with; eaten with; and worshipped with. We had shared the Spirit in a most glorious way.
Today, in Haiti, the people’s eyes are not bright – rather they stare vacantly into space. Smiles no longer grace the faces of these beautiful men, women and children. Rather, grim, frozen faces are set towards the immediate task of sustaining life at that moment in time. Today there is no laughing; no singing; no dancing. The Spirit is not visible in the faces of Haiti today.
On June20, 2011, I leave Haiti with a heavy heart. I have seen a people, once proud and resilient, compassionate and caring; fun loving and immensely talented in so many areas, now defeated and living amid ruins and poverty that are truly overwhelming even to those of us well versed in tragedy and pain.
As before, on my other trips, we spoke together, ate together, and worshipped together. However, this time, the Spirit seemed only vaguely present, as if through a thinly veiled memory rather than a real presence in the moment.
The ruins that once were Haiti are ever present in these people’s lives. At least a quarter of a million people were killed with at least another quarter of a million living in tents and tin shacks. Collapsed buildings line most streets; roads have turned to rubble and dust; garbage is piled high everywhere with pigs routing and goats grazing for their daily sustenance; water mains continue to break causing flooding in many areas, including the tent cities where so many infants sit at their tent door staring out into space; many people have no idea where their family members and friends have gone – are they somewhere in another tent, or are they dead?
If ever there was a human tragedy, this is it.
Today’s Gospel is all about the mission that Jesus gave his disciples – their marching orders, so to speak. Jesus tells the disciples to go out and to heal; he gives the disciples authority over unclean spirits; and, he warns the disciples that this will be no easy task. There will be hardships of all sorts; rejection, danger and even persecution.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” He concludes with a sharp reminder that to be a disciple means choosing the way of the cross over the comfort of a familiar and comfortable lifestyle dedicated to love of self over love of God, by saying, “…whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who find their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus is asking his disciples to show caring and compassion – to receive – even the lowliest, and to heal. Jesus tells his disciples that it is in caring, compassion and healing – in receiving those who are suffering, those who are in need, that they will find eternal life; the inner peace that only God can bestow both here on earth and for ever more. Jesus also makes it clear that being a disciple is not an easy job. It is a job that entails courage, leadership and all sorts of personal sacrifice.
We are the disciples of today. We are the ones who are being asked to take up the sword – to show caring and compassion – to receive even the lowliest, and to heal if we aspire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven; if we are to experience eternal life through a right relationship with God in the here and now.
There were others on my recent trip to Haiti – two nurses, a doctor, a businessman, and the Executive Director of National Episcopal Health Ministries. Only four of us were Episcopalian, but religious orientation really had nothing to do with the commitment to care and to heal that we all came away with after our brief but compelling visit.
Regardless of religious orientation, we all saw that the Spirit has been lost. It did not take an Episcopalian to figure that out. We all experienced heavy hearts, and feelings of being overwhelmed by the absolute and total destruction of a country and its people. We all mourned the loss of life, both literal and figurative, and we mourned the loss of hope for those who still live.
We all felt the need to take up the sword and to care, each with our own gifts for these brothers and sisters far less fortunate than we.
In his Letter To The Ephesians, Paul writes, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you might be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” He goes on to say, “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all of the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
What marvelous imagery, “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
The future of Haiti is unknown. However, here in Nevada we have made a commitment to “take up the sword,” and “as shoes for our feet” to put on whatever will make us ready to bring caring, compassion and healing – to receive – our brothers and sisters at St. Luc’s Church and School and the Hospital Ste. Croix in Leogane, Haiti. It will take leadership and courage, it will be complex and hard work, and it will require sacrifices - that is what mission work is all about.
Today, I pray that you as well will find a mission that causes you to “take up a sword,” and “put on shoes” that will lead you to the caring and compassionate work your mission requires.
There are many “Haiti’s in this world. Las Vegas is filled with them.
Once again to quote St. Paul, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” AMEN

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Eternal Life - right here; right now

I don’t know about you, but I remember exactly where I was at 6 PM on Saturday, May 21st. Does anyone else here remember where they were – does anyone even remember the reason for remembering that date?

Six PM on May 21st, 2011 was the supposed moment of “the Rapture.” The moment in time when the world would come to an end and we would all be swept up into heaven to meet God. At least those us who were worthy would have been swept to heaven. No one was quite sure what would happen to the unworthy – whatever that means – but, certainly it seemed as if that group could not look forward to a positive outcome.

At exactly 6 PM on Saturday, May 21st, I was at an altitude of about 32,000 feet in a Southwest jet flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas. I was supposed to have been on this plane about five hours earlier – but that is a different story altogether. Suffice it to say that all 120 of the passengers, myself included, were frustrated, exhausted, and definitely numb – very, very numb.

As we dozed, or gazed at words on a page of some magazine or book we had retrieved from the crowded space where our feet were supposed to be comfortably resting, but were instead crammed sideways on top of the luggage that our reading material was in, a man cried out – “It’s 6 ‘o clock – it’s time for the Rapture!”

A few people turned to look at this informative gentleman. A few people chuckled, without even turning their heads. However, the majority of the passengers continued to stare into space or at their reading material – who knows what their thoughts might have been.

I thought to myself, if anyone is going to get “carried up” certainly it will be us. After all, we are already at 32,000 feet. We are already half-way there!

Well, as we all know, there was no rapture on May 21st. Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio, a main spokesperson for the Rapture occurring in our day and age, was absolutely sure it would happen on May 21st, 2011 at 6 PM – but, it didn’t.

Unfazed by his miscalculation, the very next day Mr. Camping quickly announced that due to a mathematical miscalculation, he had been wrong. He stated that the date for the Rapture now had been extended – the new date: October 2011.

Of course, Mr. Camping first predicted that this momentous event would occur way back in 1994, so if you’re looking for a solid date here, Mr. Camping may not be your best resource at this point in time.
Where did the concept of the rapture come from anyway? What is the Rapture really all about?
The concept of the Rapture comes from something called Christian Eschatology. Christian eschatology is the study of the end of things - the end of an individual life, the end of an age, or the end of the present world and the beginning of the World to Come.
Christian eschatology is concerned with the return of Jesus – the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead. The Rapture, or the Last Judgment, signals a new heaven and a new earth, and the ultimate consummation of all of God's purposes.
Eschatological passages are found in many places throughout Scripture, especially in Isaiah, Daniel, the Gospel of Matthew, the Pauline epistles, and the Book of Revelation.
One rapture passage that we are all quite familiar with is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. “(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
In this very graphic passage Paul describes the essence – the very concrete essence - of the Rapture as envisioned by Harold Camping. “Then we who are alive…will be caught up in the clouds…to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
But did Paul actually mean to be so concrete? Will we really be caught up in the air and fly to heaven accompanied by archangels?
And what does the Rapture have to do with today’s Gospel passage from John – a passage frequently referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer?
With regard to Paul and the Rapture, a thorough study of Paul’s writings indicates that he probably was not speaking concretely when he wrote this passage to his community in Thessalonica. (By the way this particular letter was probably written sometime between 50 and 52. Just 20 years after the crucifixion and well before any of the Gospels.) Paul’s intention in this letter, as in his other letters, was most probably to have his words interpreted spiritually and metaphorically.
In fact, Paul actually instructs us in how to interpret his writings in 1 Corinthians when he says, “we (meaning Paul himself) speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught us by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
So, in speaking of those who “sleep” or are “dead,” Paul is actually referring to people who are spiritually dead.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul explained that some of these “dead” people were raised from their spiritual deadness when they awoke to the fact that the promises contained in their scriptures had indeed been fulfilled and that Jesus was truly the Messiah. He told the Christians of Rome to start acting like they were alive. He wrote: “yield yourselves unto God, as those who are alive from the dead.” (Romans 13:11)
In the same way Paul tells us that when he woke up to the fact that Jesus truly was from God - that Jesus truly was the Messiah, he – Paul - awoke spiritually. At this moment of conversion, Paul was “raptured.” However, Paul’s being “raptured,” or his being “caught up” into heaven while he was still physically alive was a spiritual and not a literal event. Paul’s rapture symbolized his awakening to the inner spiritual realities of what it means to have faith in the resurrection - in Christ.
In his letters, Paul is telling us that it is time to “wake up,” to join the living who already live and move and have their being through God in that reality.
Now, to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. The prayer is offered by Jesus at the conclusion of his farewell dinner. Jesus is preparing to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. He is also offering prayers of intercession for his disciples and for future believers. Jesus begins his prayer with:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:1-2)
He concludes with the petition:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours…And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:9-11)

Jesus is praying for all who have been given to him by the Father – all of his followers. He prays that they may have eternal life…that they may be one with God just as Jesus is one with God, both on earth and in Heaven.

He prays that his disciples will have the strength and the courage to continue his work after he has died. He prays that his disciples will serve as witnesses of God’s saving grace to those in this the chaotic world who have no faith. He prays that through this witness, through this “disciple-work,” the world might be saved and experience eternal life.

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Jesus, like Paul, is not speaking concretely – he is speaking metaphorically. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he is not referring to the length of one’s lifespan; he is referring one’s relationship with God.

Jesus is telling us that eternal life does not begin when we go to heaven – it is not the rapture envisioned by Harold Camping. Eternal life is the spiritual awakening that comes when we enter – in this life, not the next -into relationship with God through our belief in Christ’s resurrection – when we participate in the Easter glory - when we acknowledge our salvation through God’s grace in the gift of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Eternal life as Jesus understood it – and, as Paul understood it – is living at peace (shalom) with one’s self and one’s neighbor. A peace solidly rooted in our relationship with God and in our work as God’s witness in bringing that peace to our neighbor.

It is for that eternal life – that peace at the very core of our being, and through our work, at the very core of the world – that Jesus prays.

No, Mr. Camping – no rapture needed here – not in October 2011, or at any other time. No, thank you. We have Easter and we have eternal life right here, right now, and for ever and evermore. AMEN.