Monday, February 19, 2018

Sermon for February 18: Never Again

February 18, 2018
1 Lent, Year B

Never More?

There are a few non-negotiables when it comes to Lent. It is what the Prayer Book says it is: a time of self-examination and repentance. A time of prayer, fasting and self-denial – and a journey that we may not want to begin.
Many mark these days by intentionally doing something different.  Whether it is going down the familiar “giving up or taking on” route or just paying more attention to God’s call on our life.  Grabbing or guarding more time for quiet and centering.  Pausing to remember why we care -- why we believe.

The wilderness is another Lenten non-negotiable.  It always starts with Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness with wild beasts being tempted by Satan.  Wilderness is both location and metaphor in Scripture.  It is the place where life gets scary and lonely – when priorities such as food, water and security become very real – and where temptation lurks.  It is a time apart to consider how the presence of God can feel both far and very near.

Each one of us has our version of wilderness.  When we’ve been cut off from support systems and loved ones. When we’ve experienced a forced or self-imposed exile.  When tragedy strikes and we retreat or cocoon – or when grief or depression settles in for a long season. 

Wilderness in Scripture is not meant to be permanent, rather a space to move through onto to something more. 

Things can become clearer in the wilderness. 

Every other week it seems we hear reports of hikers being rescued in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  They find themselves lost or wander too far off known pathways. We too get lost in the wilderness. And we can be found.  We can be drawn into promise of the prophet Isaiah 58: v. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Along with Jesus and the wild beasts, I love this phrase in Mark: Jesus was with wild beasts, “and the angels waited on him.” 

Beyond a few mentions in Christmas pageants, we don’t think much about angels anymore.  I rarely mention them in sermons. But angels fill the pages of Scripture as expressions of God’s messengers.  They convey and communicate and show up.  They watch over and protect.  How many us have felt, when we had passed through a moment of crisis or danger, that somewhere we must have a guardian angel looking over us?  These are not just the promises to soothe a frightened child.
Our call to welcome the strangers comes with some hefty backing: 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

Novelist Marilynne Robinson captures the feeling that a parent has sending a child off to wherever parents send children off to, be it school or summer camp. A first date in the family car, college and beyond.  “Any father…must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.”

God assures us that there will be angels in the wilderness.  God sent them for his son Jesus.  God sends them to us.   We prayed this morning in the Litany: Guard and protect all children who are in danger.

In the use of the Great Litany as we begin Lent, you see how we work into our prayers events in our larger world.  We do so because our God is a God who acts in history.  Who led people out of slavery, who returned them home after exile, and who sent a Son to be a Messiah to preach freedom and love and peace.  And Christians have this stubborn belief that leaders can help shape our world for the good of us all – and thus closer to what God desires.  We certainly know that bad and evil leaders can bring about death and destruction. So we offer our leaders our prayers.  So we pray: Guide the leaders of the nations into the ways of peace and justice. Give your wisdom and strength to Donald, the President of the United States; and Chris, the Governor of this state, that in all things they may do your will, for your glory and the common good. Give to the Congress of the United States, the members of the President’s Cabinet, those who serve in our state legislature, and all others in authority the grace to walk always in the ways of truth. Bless the justices of the Supreme Court and all those who administer the law, that they may act with integrity and do justice for all your people.

“Never Again” are two powerful words.

They can be spoken between two people who have wounded each other by words or actions, and then spoken out of deep regret. 

“Never again” has been associated with the Holocaust.  The phrase reportedly first appeared on handmade signs put up by inmates at Buchenwald in April, 1945, shortly after the camp had been liberated by U.S. forces.

“Never again” are aspirational words.  Words spoken out of ruin and rubble with an aspiring hope that what has just happened will never happen again in one’s lifetime.

“Never again” can be spoken between those whose trust has been broken and confidence has been shaken.  Never again will I… take you for granted, say what I just said, hurt you in any way.
God spoke “never again” in Genesis 9.  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God gives us a model of repentance – a change in behavior based on seeing the results of one’s actions.
A parishioner told me about the Parkland Florida shooting at the end the Ash Wednesday service.  I might have heard something passing by the TV about a school shooting in the mid-afternoon, but in all honesty, it did not register.

A clergy friend of mine wrote on his blog this week (The Rev. David Romanik at “I hate that I have a ‘mass shooting routine.’ I hate that these events have become so commonplace that I know exactly how I’m going to respond. There is a grim and predictable routine: shock, sadness, outrage, blame, and apathy, all within the span of a few days, or even a few hours. Mass shootings have become so common that the only thing we feel like we can do is wait for the next one to occur.”

Even the offering of prayer has become like salt in the wounds in our current climate we are living through.  Prayer without action is always suspect.  Jesus had a way to sniff out hypocrisy. Matthew 6: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.

We’re beyond a tipping point it seems.  When “never again” is replaced with “please Lord let it not happen here.” We are people and a nation in need of deep repentance. The greatest prosperity the world has ever seen and we are awash with guns that have little to nothing to do with the hunting culture that is still strong and beloved in our state and by some of our families. 

The debate has been so soiled and positions so hardened that many us feel that we are nearly powerless to affect change.  We are getting farther away from “never again”.

And we still pray for the lives lost at another mass shooting. 

Alyssa Alhadeff, age 14
Scott    Beigel, 35
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Aaron Feis, 37
Jamie Guttenberg, 14
Chris Hixon,   49
Luke Hoyer,    15
Cara Loughran, 14
Gina Montalto, 14
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Alaina  Petty, 14
Meadow Pollack, 18
Helena Ramsay, 17
Alex Schachter, 14
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Peter Wang, 15

We pray that even if we as a society and our leader could not protect them in their schools, that God’s angels were indeed present.

May you and I use this Lenten wilderness time to link prayer with action.  May we find ways to turn and change.  Use what God has given us and make a difference in the lives a few people you touch and know.  Reach out to a stranger – or an angel – and draw them in.

May this Lenten wilderness help us find again those pieces of our lives that seemed to have been lost.  Dust off something you put down some time ago and make it new again.   
 As we prayed in the Litany:  Give us true repentance; forgive us our sins of negligence and ignorance and our deliberate sins; and grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to your word.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cuba in 2018: Healing the Wounds of History

Praying the Litany of Reconciliation in Havana on Friday noon February 9, 2018
Returning from Cuba always fills me with mixed emotions.  The trips, especially leading large groups, are often emotionally draining and physically taxing -- the physical part due mainly to long days and an unsteady adjustment to the water and food.  

From February 1st to the  10th I returned to Cuba along with 16 others from the Community of the Cross of Nails.  We were 13 Americans ("North" Americans while traveling in Latin America), the Canon for Reconciliation from Coventry, England, a German Lutheran pastor and a South African CCN representative.  The theme of our pilgrimage was "healing the wounds of history."  You can read about the roots of this global network committed to pray and work for peace and reconciliation at    The wounds of history are not hard to see when visiting Cuba, a country in many ways frozen in history and with decades-long conflict and political standoff between the U.S. and Cuban governments with no end in site.  

Our group was intentional in starting out our pilgrimage in Miami, the heart of the Cuban-American community.  We met with community leaders who support human rights activists in Cuba and who actively lobby the U.S. government to keep in place many of the trade restrictions against the Castro-led governments. I personally wanted to hear their stories, because I have long been frustrated with what I have seen as the "Cuban lobby" being obstacles for change in a decades-long stalemate of politics towards Cuba.  We also had an excellent "Cuba 101" lecture and conversation with scholar from Florida International University.   
Our group gathers in Miami at Florida International University for a pre-trip lecture on Cuba with Prof. Jorege Duany 

After flying from Miami into Holguin in the eastern part of Cuba, we traveled by bus to Santiago de Cuba, the country' second largest city.   I had the opportunity to preach (in Spanish) at Santa Maria church, which was presented a cross of nails in the 1990's. At each gathering, we shared the Coventry story: a cathedral bombed in a war, and out of the ruin came a call for forgiveness and a desire to reach out to one-time enemies and create a culture of peace. Out of death comes resurrection. Out of brokenness healing is possible.  
The final resting place of Fidel Castro in Santiago de Cuba.  A surreal experience visiting the grave of a man seen by history in so many conflicting ways.

A local merchant in Havana selling some precious vegetables,
but at higher prices post Hurricane Irma
We visited the Episcopal Church in Guantanamo, a city only miles from the infamous American naval based known for the detention and reported torture in post 9/11 combatants.  We viewed a water system that Christ Church Exeter donated three years ago and delivered new filters and replacement bulbs for the U.V. system.  

All told, after my wife Leslie stayed behind to visit our daughter-in-law's family and visit our companion church in Cardenas, in 10 days in Cuba we passed through 4 Cuban airports, visited 5 church, and I had the opportunity to preach on 3 occasions in Spanish.

How is Cuba right now?  I would have to say not good.  They are still living through the impact of Hurricane Irma last September that destroyed the season's crops and devastated large tourist areas. Like many Caribbean countries, Cuba is dependent on tourism to support the economy.  

The recent Trump Administration restrictions have also severely reduced the number of Americans coming to Cuba, after a surge of travelers came in 2016 and 2017 after President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations and resumed regular commercial air travel.  Visas to visit the U.S. are not being processed in the nearly empty U.S. embassy, thus impacting the lives of many Cubans who have been long separated from family members.  

One thriving Airbnb's are empty and many classic American cars are sidelined in Havana.  Many of the people I spoke to felt discouraged by recent events.  In addition, there is growing anxiety and uncertainty in the upcoming transfer of power from Raul Castro this year, which has been delayed for unknown reasons.

Cuba is a tough place right now.  

It is our hope that these trips bring an expression of solidarity and concern -- that the Cuban people and our sisters and brothers in our churches come to know that know and care about them. The water systems that we are able to transport and install are humbly received by people who are resilient and inspiring beyond words.  

Pray for Cuba.  
A bittersweet portrait of President Obama in Havana, whose openings to Cuba showed much promise for closer ties
A member of our group, Rick Miessau, testing the water coming into a Havana
church from the street
Canon Sarah Hills preaching and later presenting a cross of nails
to the First Baptist Church in Matanzas 
Erique the Cathedral painter sending greetings to my son Will, who lived in Cuba
for a year in 2013-14
Donations brought to Cuba and delivered to Fr. Halbert in Santiago 
Seeing an old friend Bishop Suffragan Ulysis 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Don’t Worry, be Joyful

December 17, 2017
3 Advent, Year B

Don’t Worry, be Joyful

Some years ago, my wife and I played a terrible practical joke on a few of our closest family members.  Having grown weary of the ubiquitous Christmas card end-of-year “look at what we did and where we went this year” letter insert, we decided to write our own version.  We wrote a normal one – listing what we’d done and the places we’d gone -- and mailed it out to the larger list.  We also wrote a different one and mailed it to a few relatives and close friends to see what they might think.

In this letter, we did not speak of our children’s achievements, our professional successes or our global adventures.  We went dark.  We wrote of tantrums, expulsions, illness, humiliations and failures. Some of it was partially true – most of it made it – and we were so convincing in our sad, snarky Christmas letter that a relative reached out to us to see if we were O.K.  And then we told them of our scheme.

Deep down, I think what we were trying to do was to push back up against the pressure to have life rolled up in nicely presented package by the end of each year for the world to see.  A life that from the outside projected happiness, when we all probably know that that is not always the case.  When others want a smile and happiness, there can be a lot stirring inside and around us. 

It was musician Bobby McFerrin who wrote and performed his a cappella hit “Don’t worry be Happy” in 1988. 

Here's a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don't worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double

Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don't worry, be happy

Today, the third Sunday in Advent and its dominant theme, is the church’s version of that song.  Sort of.  Well, not really. It’s more than that. Long ago when Advent used to be longer and more penitent, the leaders figured that people in the midst of fasting and waiting needed a boost.  So, the message for this Sunday – very close to Christmas – was to rejoice.  There was a light at the end of the tunnel.  There’s a difference, as it turns out, between happiness by joy.

The late theologian Henri Nouwen described that difference. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing -- sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death -- can take that love away."  

External conditions can change day to day thus shifting our wiliness and response of happiness.  Joy goes deeper. 

What Scripture shows us is that it is possible to experience joy in the midst of profoundly sad moments and hard times, because God enters our lives and often comes to us when we are most ready to accept what before we might have thought we could have done on our own.  There is no accident that transformation and change does not happen so much when we are flying high and most confident about who we are and where we are going, but when we miss, get shaken, confused, begin to doubt or are struck by adversity that we did not see coming.  Then God enters in. 

The public ministry of Jesus began with him quoting the message of profound joy that Isaiah speaks of.   Good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted are patched up, liberty is proclaimed to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  Mourners are comforted.  Sorrow becomes joy. 

When people come to me in moments of crisis and uncertainty, and ask where they should begin to read in the Bible – they know they have a version laying around the house somewhere – I encourage the Psalms.

The reason we read the Psalms because they allow us to hear how people have prayed for centuries through the ups and downs of life – abandonment, defeat, exile, and hardship.   They allow us rage against God when we feel alone or wronged.  They listen when we feel as if the whole world is against us. They accompany us through the valleys of the shadow of death and remind us that our help is to come from the Lord.   They invite us to see that the sun will rise again and new day will lead to new possibilities.

They show a pathway not to happiness – an emotion dependent on the external – but something more that comes from above.  And in that moment, in Psalm 126 we hear and echo:  The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.  Those who go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. 

The third Sunday of Advent wants us to hear loud and clear: Paul writes in the Epistle:  v. 16-21 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; hold fast to what is good. 

My wife Leslie and I have traveled to Mexico with our family many times.  When our kids where very young, we flew into Mexico City to transfer to a language school in Cuernavaca, some two hours south by car.  Those where clergy vacations in those days: the whole family in language class.  On this trip, we flew into Mexico City at night and saw lights that would spread from horizon to the next.  Some 18 million people living the vast city, one that we know is susceptible to earthquakes and violence.  I remember after we collected our luggage, we had to walk through crowds and crowds of people to find the car that would take us the rest of way.  With kids too big to carry, and too young to allow to wander on their own, we grabbed their hands and held on tight as we walked pulling our suitcases.    

Hold fast to those we love.  Hold fast to what is good.  Hold fast to the gift of community in a land that values independence more than dependence. 
The Pew Research Center did a survey of most and least religious states last year and ranked them.  Most religious: Alabama.   There was a tie for 50th – the least religious states.  Massachusetts and New Hampshire.   Hold onto community when it seems like coming to church is swimming upstream.

Hold fast to the joy that music brings – especially this time of year.  Hold fast to those moments that seem to be going by too quickly by taking time to sit, pause, look up and around.  Hold fast and hold on to what matters and let the rest go. 

Going back to Nouwen’s words – learning the difference between happiness and joy -- is becomes "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved.”

Why is unconditional love so true and so hard?

Diplomats often speak of conditions that have to be met before opposing sides can sit down at a negotiation table with one another. 
It took the prodigal son distance and time away from his father – time misspent doing all the wrong things – that in returning he discovered that he was loved even after he wandered, rebelled, and squandered away almost everything. 

The first step of faith – in being able to experience joy – is talking ourselves into being worthy of love and forgiveness by God because of who we are and in spite of what we’ve done.

Loving unconditionally involves doing the inner work that many of find difficult and illusive. It is a life-long process of coming to see ourselves as God does.

This is the heart of what Advent waits to announce.  The incarnation of God in Jesus, whose birth and life John was preaching and preparing for, had no pre-conditions.   God came into a broken world with no guarantees.

Jesus was born in an out of way, almost forgotten town – far away from the halls of power.  Lowly shepherds are a lasting testimony for the working-class roots of the first Nativity scene. 

In the days that remain until Christmas, spend a few moments each day, thinking and praying about what fades away as soon as the special day and season is over – the decorations and lights put away for next year – and what stays with us through all our days.  Hold onto to One who holds onto you.  Always.