"Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company." Mark Twain

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Many roads lead to the top of the mountain

And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.... [A]nd if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I Corinthians 12:27 - 13:13

Many roads lead to the top of the mountain.
Moses’s road was first a river. Drawn out of the water by and Egyptian princess, the leader of the Hebrews argued with God, tried to get out of being Moses by saying he stuttered and wasn’t a very good leader, and questioned God, often all at the same time and with the same breath. Moses got frustrated with God, and God got frustrated with Moses. But God stuck with Moses, and Moses was a faithful as any human ever was. Moses walked with the chosen people of God on their road, and he walked as far as he could into freedom.
Peter’s road began as a fisherman, with his brother Andrew, and with a different name. While popular stories hold that fishermen of the ancient Near East were hard-working, simple men scraping out a living on the shores of the sea, archaeological evidence shows that fishermen like Simon Peter and Andrew were well-organized, intelligent businessmen with unions and wealth. As a faithful Jew and successful businessman, Simon’s road was secure, until Jesus appeared on the road and asked Simon to leave his life, his family, and his security and walk on the road with him and become Peter, the rock of the church.
James and John, too, were fishermen, likely successful and secure like Peter. Both brothers were hot-tempered, so much so that Jesus nicknamed the brothers, "Boanerges," which means Sons of Thunder. They walked their road to the mountain with ambition - they were the two of the twelve that asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the kingdom and impetuousness - they said they were willing to share the cup Jesus was to drink, but had not read the fine print of exactly sharing that cup would mean.
John’s road to the top of the mountain was a lengthy one. He alone of the twelve is said to have died of old age and spared a martyr’s death. Church legend holds that he was the beloved disciple who took the Blessed Mother Mary into his care after the crucifixion.
Peter and James’s roads on this earth were not as long. James was the first of the twelve to be martyred. Peter’s while martyrdom came later, his road to his death was difficult and demanding. Peter was the first of the twelve to confess Jesus as Messiah. Peter attempted to walk on the sea and sank. Peter impulsively wanted to build three tabernacles on the mountaintop and stay, and, like James and John, not knowing what he said. And Peter denied Christ three times. But Peter also became the rock of the church, albeit in his mind, a church for Jews only.
Paul, though, traveled a different road to the mountain. A stern man, convinced that his understanding of the road to God was the only road to walk, Paul discovered otherwise on his road. Like Moses, Paul met God in a most unsubtle way, and out of his own blindness, he discovered a new road to walk. Paul went from persecuting Christians to becoming, with Peter, the greatest leaders of the early church.
All five of these men walked their roads to the mountain, to the place of God. And, like so many of the cast of characters in the Bible, they struggled with their own understanding of God and Christ. In the Bible, we get glimpses of points on their roads, and sometimes we are fortunate enough to see the entire journey. As the children of God walked their roads, they stumbled and fell. They loved God and denied God. They spoke rashly, harshly, even stupidly. They acted without thinking and, more importantly, loved without thinking. Probably, they all thought their road was the best road, even the only road, even though they all traveled differend roads.
We have our roads to the mountain, too. Each one of us responds to God’s call to follow God from where we are in our lives. As similar as humans may be, no one is exactly like us. No one else has lived in our skin or walked our road or experienced life in our lives. That individuality is a great gift from God, primarily because our individuality weaves together to create a great tapestry of community.
Our uniqueness is a great gift, but it certainly causes stress, since God ordained that it was not good for humans to be alone. So God gave us community, where lots of different humans live together, all of our differences and original aspects and experiences come together to give us a rich experience, but one with at least a bit of strife.
A priest I know tells the story of Noah's first official meeting once everyone and every creature was safely on the ark. He looks at all of creation and says, "No one eat anyone else."
So how do we do it? How do we live together, honoring differences, but not eating each other?
Paul gives us a profoundly simple answer by telling us he shows us a more excellent way. Not a way Paul always took, but the way Jesus implores us to take - that we live together in love. Paul lived in a world with as much diversity as our own, and the church he led was not without controversy, either. Paul and Peter each led coalitions with their own views about who could and could not be in the church, mostly based on a person’s adherence to Judaism . Both groups firmly believed they were right, and had scriptures to prove it, as well. Eventually, they came to some tentative consensus, but the bickering didn’t end.
I wonder if the beginning of dissension and disagreement in the church prompted Paul’s letter on love. I wonder if people were asking Paul, "How do I live with this pagan next door who refuses to accept Jesus as Messiah; How do I share eucharist with the person who doesn’t agree with me; or How do I remain faithful to God as I’ve experience God in my community while not eating the life and soul of another?
And Paul says, "Love them, like Jesus told you to do. And don’t just say you love them. Love them by being patient and kind. Love by not being arrogant or mean. Don’t say your way is the only way, remember, we’ve all walked our own roads, and no walks are invalid. Forgive and let go of grudges. Celebrate and rejoice, but don’t say, ‘I told you so.’"
There’s a reason this section from Corinthians is so well-loved, and there’s a reason it’s read with the gospel story of the Transfiguration.
Many roads lead to the top of the mountain.
May we have the courage to walk our road with God and the love to let others walk theirs. May we listen to Christ when he commands us to love, and may we be willing to live out that love on our walk in life.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Welcome to Monday, Lent 1 Sermon

I have wondered what I would do with this blog other than ramble on about my thoughts. Mondays seem like a pretty good time to share my sermon from Sunday. These sermons are almost never 'proofed' for spelling or punctuation. By the time my sermon hits the page most of the editing has been done and I usually preach my first written draft. Most of my sermons are put to paper between 6am and 8am Sunday mornings. Enjoy. J

Lent 1
Temptation is something that all of us face. The shape of our temptations may be different, but in the end all temptations lead us away from a deeper relationship with God and away from one another. One of our problems is that we have a tendency to focus our discussion of temptation on a totally individual level. We hear the gospel for today and say, this is the way life is, just me against the devil. This gospel, through the centuries, has led many people to go into the desert to battle their own demons. But in our time we know that the wilderness can find us where ever we are.

Just after Jesus is baptized, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days by the devil. Notice that what we have in the gospel us only the very end of this 40 days. The temptations we read take place after the 40 days, so the devil is really at his wits end. He tempts Jesus with, food because he has not eaten, power over all the kingdoms of the world, and in the end challenges his identity as the Son of God in hopes that his pride would overtake him. At each temptation Jesus answers with scripture and in the end the devil went away until a more opportune time.

Now this pattern is probably how most of us think of temptation. We have a cartoon image in our head of the little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other thy are in a constant battle over our personality. More recently we have been taking the path of psychology. Temptations are merely projections of our own worst instincts, the evil that is inside of us. The only way to deal with this is to look inward, just me against my demons.
On the other hand there are still many people who believe in a great evil underground, with Satan at its head. This is the way books and movies portray temptation. In one of the great classics of Christian fiction, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis portrays the minions of evil as a great corporation, with many levels of hierarchy. Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood are low level ground workers for Satan the CEO. Their job is to temp people away from Christ in any way possible and the book is a series of letters that follows Wormwoods progress with one particular man. Letter Number 2 is one of my favorites. Wormwood has informed his uncle that his "patient" has become a Christian. Screwtape tells Wormwood not to worry "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself." He goes on "Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about he Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside he sees the local grocer with a rather oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad and in very small print." The devils in C.S. Lewis attempt to use the world and even the church itself to temp the patient.

This kind of thinking about temptation and Satan is used almost daily.
So we are left with two competing images of temptation. The first is something that is within us, the other is something that comes from outside of us. Those who believe that evil is inherent and is a condition to be dealt with, criticize the other side and claim that they don’t take responsibility for their own actions. Those who believe evil is from the outside criticize the other side by claiming they don’t take evil seriously enough. So which side is right?

I must confess that I grew up with an idea of the devil trying to get me. This is what I was taught in the Southern Baptist Church. I had to remain ever vigilant against the temptations of the Enemy. Later on I moved to the more psychological viewpoint and battled temptation as an internal problem, something from within my own psyche. Now I hold a little bit of each idea.
The temptation lies at the same time inside of me and outside of me and it in the interaction between those two places that we are most likely to do evil. We cannot claim that we are wholly innocent creatures left to the whims of Satan, nor can we say that we are totally guilty and only have ourselves to blame. The world is more complicated than either of these ideas on their own.
We live in a world of relationships and those relationships affect us and help create who we are. When we focus on ourselves to the exclusion of others we miss how we are affected by them, when we focus on others we miss our responsibility.

Right now I think we are swinging toward an outward focus in our world. This is happening both inside and outside the Church. I’m sure you have read in the paper the ongoing saga of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion. Some people believe that the Church is under a satanic attack by gays and lesbians. Others call the exclusion, abuse and violence perpetrated against gays and lesbians the work of Satan. The point is that evil wins either way. When we attack another with the claim that we hold the exclusive truth the damage is done, evil has accomplished its task, we are separated from one another. We no longer have to look at one another and see a fellow member of Christ’s body.

Now I want to be clear in this matter so there is no confusion, I fully support the work of gays and lesbians in this Church. I believe that they are beloved children of God and count many same sex couples as dear friends. But I would never go so far as to say that those who disagree with me are in league with Satan. I truly believe that we can be in disagreement and still walk to this altar and receive the same Body of Christ, and still be the Body of Christ.

One of the greatest temptations that individuals and the Church has faced throughout the ages is the temptation towards purity. That somehow we must be perfect and make the church perfect and thereby exclude all that doesn’t fit our ideas of perfection. But it is in the very act of exclusion and isolation that evil accomplishes its task. As our temptation toward purity deepens we are left with a smaller and smaller community banded together to support and love one another and as it diminishes further and further we are finally left alone with no one able to live up to our standards.

What is called for in this season of Lent and every day throughout the year is a dose of humility. I leave you with this story from the Desert Father Macarius in hopes that we may all remember the only way to overcome our worst temptations. Macarius was once returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm leaves. The devil met him by the way, with a sickle, and wanted to run him through with it but could not. The devil said, ‘Macarius, I suffer a lot of violence from you, for I can’t overcome you. For whatever you do, I do also. If you fast I eat nothing; I you keep watch, I get no sleep. There is one quality in which you surpass me.’ Macarius said to him, ‘What is it?’ The devil answered, ‘Your, humility; that is why I cannot prevail against you.’

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Starting is the Hardest Part

So here it is, the Anglican Underground Blog. Since this is the first post to this blog, and I have no idea how consistent I will be in posting to it, I should say a lot in this post. My hope it to get a few friends, also young Episcopal priests, to join me in posting their thoughts and reflections about the Church and the world. I hope that this blog will inspire all who read it to think for themselves and not be slaves to someone elses ideas. I will begin with a brief introduction.
I am, Jeremy Lucas. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I have a BA in Political Science and History and a law degree from Birmingham School of Law. I practiced law for 4 years before moving to New York City to attend General Seminary. I graduated and was ordained in 2004. I am currently the rector of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Athens, Alabama.
My religious life is similar to lots of Episcopalians. I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church in the early years of the conservative takeover. I attended the SBC until high school, where I went regularly to a Cumberland Presbyterian Church. After high school I ended my Church affiliation for close to 10 years before finding the Episcopal Church in 1997.
Perhaps the most influential moment in my spiritual life came in 2001, the day after my 30th Birthday. We moved to NYC in August of 2001. On September 11, 2001, the day after I turned 30, we started our first full week of classes 2 miles from Ground Zero. The events of September 11th and the days, weeks and months that followed effected me profoundly and helped create the priest I am. Here is a piece I wrote about one experience;

Chinatown, NYC
It was late when we started home. I hadn’t looked at a clock or watch for hours but the depth of the darkness, broken only by the street lamps, said something about the lateness that no timepiece could. We had stopped once on our way back right across from the courthouse on Centre Street. The eight of us sat down, drank what little water we had left, then got up to finish the journey we had started many hours before.
By this time most everyone in the group had started referring to me as Moses, so it was really no surprise that we were not taking the shortest or most direct path to Chelsea. Much of our night had been spent wandering from place to place, zig-zagging through the wilderness of the cool, fall night air. As it happened we ended up in Chinatown.
Most of us had been to Chinatown before this night and, in fact, only a week earlier four of us had met in the plaza of the World Trade Centers and walked past City Hall Park and up Centre Street, following almost the exact path home we were taking now. We had seen it in all its glory on a Sunday afternoon, and the life of the street seeped though the souls of our shoes and up and down our spine.
The night drew on, our legs were tired and our minds were slowly decompressing as we walked. It may be closer to the truth to say that our minds were in our legs whose only thought was to keep walking until it was time to stop. It was in this time that one of those breaks in conversation lifted its finger and softly touched our lips, silence fell and then it happened. The “it” was the next few steps, or 10 or 20 in which not a word was spoken nor one sound uttered by the whole of New York. The city that never sleeps had passed out from sheer exhaustion. No cars, no planes, no people, no sirens, no jackhammers, no. I remember thinking that this must be what it’s like to stand on the surface of the moon.
We continued walking, down the middle of the street in Chinatown, and all eyes and ears and mouths had closed. I and all those with me had, for all intents and purposes disappeared. This is only to say that we, I, felt as though I was gone. This painful silence had taken me.
Where it had taken me is the point of this tale because at the same time I was sure I could not be seen by any creature in this world, I was completely sure that, more clearly than ever before I was truly visible to God. The silence had carried me face to face with God so that I was purely visible and wholly present.
Twenty minutes later we caught a cab on Houston Street. “Have you been working down there tonight?” ,“Yes”, “The ride’s on me tonight”

Since the journey is the destination, this is where I begin my blogging adventure.
J