Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reflections after a week (plus a sermon!)

After a week in Las Cruces, I think I can say that I like it here. I am situated comfortably in an apartment just across the street from the NMSU campus, with a Starbucks on one corner and an Indian restaurant on the other - joy! I have acquired a library card and a bank account. Since books are slightly more important to me than food, I am quite happy with the library card. And the library is excellent. They have an extraordinarily good collection of videos too, which is nice. Nerd Moment: They have massive amounts of Anime! I am finally working my way through the whole Cowboy Bebop series. As convenient as Starbucks is, I prefer the cafe I am sitting in now, which is about half a mile from my apartment - it would be walking distance if it were under 100 degrees Farenheit. It is called Milagro, they roast their own beans, and the place has the perfect coffeehouse atmosphere. The barista is suitably tattooed and pierced, and I am watching a gentleman sitting out on the patio, painting in mixed media. I must also confess that I am eavesdropping on a conversation about Anarchist political theory (or lack thereof?). I plan on making this comfortable little corner of Bohemia into my second home for the duration of my stay in Las Cruces.

The internship itself is also going well. So far I enjoy working with Fr. Nick and the other staff here. I have been researching the history of the Parish and the area. A major task for me during the internship is learning to assess different parishes. This is going to be of enormous help to me in the course of my career, I am certain. I will be traveling to different parishes, as I have already mentioned, and preparing a sort of report on each. The idea is to figure out what the strengths and weaknesses are at each parish, what areas it needs to grow in, etc. This isn't the sort of thing that gets taught in Seminary, but it is important. I have known a lot of clergy, and not one is without a story of some occasion when they were simply blindsided by some unexpected conflict in a parish. Inevitably, looking back, they describe these disasters as the sort of things which could have been avoided fairly easily if they had just know what signs to look for.

I also had the chance to meet Bishop Michael Vono, the relatively new diocesan. There was a pleasant get together for the deanery clergy, and I was invited - I was also put on the spot and asked to say grace for the dinner. I am told that Bishop Vono is a moderate liberal. He had some comments about the current divisions in the Anglican world, and I found his remarks very gracious. I also found him to be very personable, and he seems to be interested in church planting. I will have the chance to talk with him at greater length later during my internship.

I also preached this morning. I always enjoy preaching, and I think it went well today, although the readings were rather difficult. I have very cranky theological objections to having more than one Eucharist a day in a parish, but two services does give the preacher the chance to improve a bit on the sermon the second time around. I got some very helpful tips from Fr. Nick afterward, and I expect that my preaching will improve greatly by the end of the Summer.

In any case, here is the sermon I preached today.
The readings were Proper 8, year A. (N. B. St. James still uses the BCP lectionary, not the RCL)
Isaiah 2: 10-17, Romans 6: 3-11, Matthew 10: 34-42 and Psalm 89: 1-4, 15-18.

The Peaceful Sword of Christ.

Last week, I had the adventure of driving across the country from New York to Las Cruces. Most of you have probably been on at least one long road trip in your life and you know that on road trips you see lot of interesting billboards. I saw billboards for the Jesse James wax museum, billboards for Churches, and at least one that just said Jesus in really big capital letters.
But the most interesting billboards I saw were in Missouri along the I-44. There must have been at least twenty billboards for the Precious Moments Chapel. You all know the precious moments figures? they’re the little figurines with the big eyes, sort of child like, designed to make you feel warm and comfortable and sentimental. There’s a whole industry around them. Figurines, greeting cards, posters, you name it. And, apparently, somewhere just east of Joplin Missouri, there’s a whole chapel with Precious Moments figurines portraying scenes from the Old and New Testament.

I found myself wondering, as I saw billboard after billboard advertising the precious moments chapel, how they would portray some of the biblical stories. Because, as I’m sure you have noticed, there are some of the stories of the Bible that are anything but cosy or comforting. For example, I doubt that any of the readings for this Sunday made it into the Precious Moments Chapel. In the Gospel reading, Jesus goes out of his way to avoid being comforting or cosy.
It is as if Jesus knew perfectly well that people were expecting him to be comforting, easy going - a cuddly messiah - and he wanted as quickly and decisively as possible to disabuse them of that notion. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth” he tells his disciples “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” If Jesus had a press secretary - which fortunately he didn’t - he would have pulled Jesus aside at this point and asked him “What are you thinking, Lord? you’re supposed to be the prince of peace! People want nice pastel pictures of you looking meek, and mild, and comforting, maybe holding a lamb - and definitely not holding a sword.”
Now Jesus’ disciples had every reason to expect that Jesus had come precisely to bring peace. When he was born the Angels declared peace on Earth good will towards men; The prophet Isaiah had said that Jesus would be called “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), and St. Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, refers to the message of Christ as the gospel of peace. It seems like Peace, is very much something Jesus came to bring.
How can the gospel of Peace bring division that “sets a man against his father” and “a daughter against her mother”? Jesus did come to bring peace, but it was not the kind of peace that his disciples, or anyone else expected. There are at least two kinds of peace to be had. The World’s peace, and God’s peace.

The world makes us a lot of offers of peace. It offers us the false peace of not being challenged, or pushed beyond where we are comfortable. Some people wanted Jesus to bring that kind of peace - they wanted Jesus to just be just the meek and mild saviour, who didn’t really ask much of them, who made them feel warm and comfortable all the time. They wanted the peace of not being bothered. Or some people wanted a more expansive peace, a political peace. Jesus and his disciples lived under the rule of the Roman empire, and Rome prided itself keeping the peace. Rome could keep peace in its empire, but it was a peace that was always backed up by violence. Rome had the biggest military force in the world and no qualms about using it. People would behave themselves for Rome because they knew that if they got out of line Rome would destroy them.

Rome stands as a good example of this World’s kind of peace; a peace maintained by violence and by fear. Many many people in Israel wanted Jesus to bring this kind of peace. They expected the Messiah to establish Israel as the center of an earthly empire where God would reign. They imagined the same kind of peace which Rome offered, just with Israel holding all the power.
That is the kind of peace which Jesus most emphatically did not come to bring. He brought a different kind of peace from anything that the world knew or expected. Rome ruled by the sword, and Jesus said he came to bring a sword, but his sword was very different from Rome’s.

If you look on the cover of your bulletins there’s an icon (See above). I don’t know how much you may know about icons, but they usually show some event from the life of Christ or the lives of the saints. I love Icons, because they don’t just show how an event would have looked if you saw it in person; instead they use symbols to show something about what that event means. I think this Icon shows what kind of sword Jesus came to bring.

This Icon is the Resurrection. Jesus is bursting from the tomb, victorious, and powerful, and in his hand he’s holding his cross like a weapon - like a sword, in fact. Obviously, Jesus didn’t really come out of the tomb carrying his cross. The point the icon makes is that the Cross was the weapon that Christ used to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. The cross was the sword by which Christ brought God’s peace.

This gives us a clue as to how different God’s peace is from the World’s. Rome also used the cross as a weapon to keep peace, by putting those people who disturbed the peace onto a cross. Jesus used the cross as weapon by being the crucified one. Unlike the World, Jesus doesn’t keep the peace by overpowering his opponents, but by suffering at their hands and for their sakes.
Jesus’ victory and his peace don’t come through violence - but the sword of the cross still divides people. St. Paul asks us “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death.” And this is the most fundamental division that there can be between people. We’ve either died with Christ or we havn’t.

St. Paul continues by telling us to consider ourselves “dead to sin, but alive to God in Jesus Christ.” To be dead to sin means we aren’t defined by any of the things of the World. Not by our age, race, intelligence, wealth, family or any of things the World normally uses to say who a person is. Maybe most importantly, we are no longer defined by our sins and our failures. Those things are as meaningless to a baptized person as they are to a dead person. To live to God means that we are defined only by our relationship to the Father through Jesus Christ. In Jesus we have peace with God. And it isn’t like the World’s peace, because God’s peace is not a peace kept by force or threats of violence, but by the selfless love of Christ on the cross.

If we live our lives as if we really believed this, trying to take up our crosses daily and lead Christ like lives, we will find that we encounter conflict. Because living in light of Christ’s death and Resurrection is a threat to the World’s kind of peace. Effectively, we say that the world has no hold on us. The world will try to convince us that we are wrong, that it still has some claim on us. One tactic the world uses is to tell us there is something called an “ordinary person.”
The world tells us we are just ordinary people. The people sitting next to us in Church are just ordinary people. All of us still have to go to work, still get tired, sick and old. We aren’t special to God, and we are still just caught up in the same hectic mess of the world that we knew before we ever met Jesus. Really, the world says, nothing has changed. And this is a very convincing lie. Because we do still look like ordinary people, even to ourselves.

Even though we have new life in Christ, that life is hidden until Christ’s return when we will be changed in a way that the whole world can see. It takes faith to see as defined by our relationship to God, who we can’t see, and not by the daily pressures of the world. It takes faith to realize that in God’s eyes there is no such thing as an ordinary person. C. S. Lewis said once “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . you have never met a mere mortal.” The only way to look at things this way is by constantly reminding ourselves of how God sees us, through prayer, worship and reading the bible.

When we look at ourselves and others in this way, with the eyes of faith, we have the real peace that Jesus came to bring. And when we look at other people in faith, trying to see them the way God does, that peace we have from God spills over into our relationships with other people - even people who look impossible to get along with by worldly standards.

This kind of peace is very different from the world’s peace. It is a peace based on love, not force; it is a peace that we can have even when the whole world is falling apart around us and is anything but peaceful, because it doesn’t come from the world. It is a peace so different from the worlds, that in the blessing at the end of our Sunday services it is called the peace that passes all understanding. The world can’t understand this kind of peace, but faith can grasp it. When those around us see a kind of peace in us that they can’t explain, it is one the most powerful witnesses we can give to the truth of the Gospel, because it shows that there is something God can give that the world can’t give or take away.

When we leave Church today, may we walk out into the world, armed with the sword of the cross, and may the peace of God become visible in all our lives as our proof that Christ has overcome the world.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Now in New Mexico

Well, I made it to New Mexico in one piece. I got to Amarillo, TX on Friday and stopped for lunch. My goal for Friday was to make it to Albuquerque, and since Amarillo was only three hours from Albuquerque, I decided to dawdle a little bit. I wandered into a store that claimed to be "Texas' Catholic Superstore!" where the proprietor evangelized me.
He also asked me if I had ever read Thomas Aquinas. I have to admit, I found this a bit funny. I was even wearing my Aquinas medal at the time. I just said yes, I have read a little Aquinas, and he is one of my favorites.
I found a number of things I wanted in the store - mostly statues and pictures, and a couple of books - but I resisted the temptation to buy anything, and pressed on to Albuquerque, where I spent the night.

I arrived in Las Cruces yesterday (I can't believe it was only yesterday!) around one in the afternoon, and I was greeted by Fr. Nick and his wife from the church. We had lunch at a Boba shop located a couple of blocks away from my new apartment, which is also next door to a Starbucks, where I am sitting right now, giving you an update.
I had time for a quick nap before I went off to the Juvenal detention facility with a team from the Church. They go once a month and just hang out with the guys in one dorm area, and spend a little time in prayer. One member of our team gave a brief talk on the presence of God in our lives, and how we can experience that presence. I was impressed, as I have been in the past when I participated in prison ministry, by the amount of faith which some of these guys have, and I am looking forward to going back.

This morning I attended both services at St. James, and met the congregation. They were all very welcoming, and I am looking forward to getting to know the parish better. In the mean time I am taking a break, and trying to catch up on email and various other tasks. Tomorrow I have the day off, so I will be taking the day to explore Las Cruces. It looks like a beautiful town, and I think I will enjoy my summer here.
Pax Tibi, Per Crucem.

Friday, June 17, 2011

On the Road.

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Amarillo, TX taking advantage of their free internet and reliably tasty coffee. This is the fourth day of my long road trip to New Mexico.
It has been a long exhausting drive hopping from one westbound highway to another, staring at billboards that advertise by turns Baptist Churches, "Adult" superstores, Long defunct tourist attractions, or simply read JESUS. I wonder: how many people really respond to evangelistic billboards like that?
I also saw many, many signs for the Precious Moments Chapel, which can be found somewhere outside of Joplin, MO. According to the signs, there are many scenes from the Old and New Testaments there, enacted by the neotenic Precious Moments characters. I almost wanted to stop just to see how they would handle the story of the Levite's concubine.

I have never done a trip like this on my own before and it has been a long time since I really did anything comparable with my family. The truth is though, I enjoy driving and I enjoy watching the landscape of the country change. Somewhere in western MO was the most dramatic change - the soil abruptly changed to a reddish color, which became deeper as I went through OK. Oklahoma had the distinction of having the friendliest toll road workers I have ever run into - they were positively chatty compared with the typically depressed, dreary workers I am accustomed to meeting in such jobs. Personally, I think any job in which I was stuck in a small box where I got to inhale car fumes for eight hours a day while wearing a painfully orange vest would make me a bit cranky, so I am impressed with the Oklahomins.
The weather has been mostly good. The most distressing thing was the winds in OK, which were pretty strong, but the sky was clear with no sign of tornadoes, which was my major concern.

I did pass through Joplin Missouri though, and saw the very edge of the devastation there. I was plainly far from the worst of it, and passing by at 7o mph, but I could see the ruins of a few houses through the broken line of trees. Bits of the destroyed homes were hung in the branches of the trees that were still standing. I said a number of prayers as I drove through that area.

Now I am in Texas, as I mentioned. I lived here a number of years ago, although I was in the Dallas area. I don't think I have set foot in Texas for a good fifteen years, and it is kind of nice to see it for a bit. I did not enjoy living here as I recall, but it is not a bad state to drive in. The roads in this area are not bad, and there is not nearly as much construction as there was in some other states.

I expect to be in New Mexico this evening and at my summer apartment in Las Cruces by early afternoon tomorrow. On the road, I am listening to Eugene Peterson's book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and enjoying it enormously (Technically, this violates my no theology rule, but I it was the only audio book I had on my iPod). Peterson is an excellent spiritual writer, and actually quite good on the Eucharist. Despite advice I have received to listen to music on long trips, rather than audio books, I find that spoken words keep me awake a little better. In the evenings, when I stop for the night, I am reading The Great Gatsby. I have never read it before, which I realize is a big gap in my claims to literacy, so I am filling it in now. I have finished the Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, as well as Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick. I found Eye in the Sky entertaining, but I was not really grabbed by it. I think it was one of Dick's earlier novels before he went completely insane, but also before he really started dealing with some of the themes of identity and perception that his books are best known for.

As sad thing happened yesterday, and I heard from my parents that they had to put one of the family cats, Boots, to sleep. He was about fourteen years old - older than my youngest sibling. He had kidney failure, and was not able to eat or even drink anymore. I was fond of him, and miss him but it was especially hard on my siblings, most of whom have never gone through having a pet die. He was really my younger sister's cat, and it was especially hard for her. It was also the first time that a family pet has needed to be put to sleep, which I know was a hard decision for the family to make; they are all in my prayers. Personally, I am a big pet person, and I hope to see them in heaven.

Well, its about time to get back on the road. Next time I post, it will probably be from Las Cruces, God willing.